Self-defense or road rage? Utah Supreme Court hears arguments in case involving self-defense law

May 8, 2023, 10:17 PM | Updated: 11:04 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the first appellate challenge involving a 2021 self-defense law.

The case in question stems from a shooting in 2019. Jon Michael Clara fired several shots toward a truck that had repeatedly rammed into the SUV he was driving. One of the bullets flew through the cab of a nearby uninvolved vehicle, narrowly missing a child.

The case is one of several the KSL Investigators have followed after first reporting on unintended consequences of the new law.

Case background

“He made the wrong call,” assistant solicitor general Andrew Peterson argued Monday.

Representing Clara, defense attorney Ann Taliaferro pointed out, “it was three seconds.”

The three seconds she’s referring to is part of a video that was captured by a dash camera inside Clara’s vehicle. Seven shots can be heard during those three seconds, after his SUV spun around and came to a rest facing oncoming traffic.

A blue truck with a snowplow rammed into an SUV multiple times, spinning it around to face oncoming traffic on Nov. 23, 2019.

Investigators never determined who was driving the truck, but Clara faced felony firearm charges for shooting at it.

Clara said he saw brake lights and feared the driver was turning around to come after him and his passenger again.

“I was just aiming to let him know, if you come back this way, you know, you’re gonna get shot,” he testified during a hearing in November 2021.

Clara made use of a new self-defense law he urged lawmakers to pass.

House Bill 227 sailed through the Utah legislature in 2021. It allows people who are charged with a crime and claim self-defense to have a justification hearing before the case goes to trial. If prosecutors cannot disprove a self-defense claim with clear and convincing evidence in that early hearing, the case is permanently dismissed.

That is what happened in Clara’s case, last year. In March, 3rd District Judge Todd Shaughnessy ruled the state had not met its burden of proof, and despite evidence he said “troubles” him, he dismissed the case.

“This case is, in the court’s view, a classic case that should be decided by a jury,” he said.

In an unusual move, the judge urged prosecutors to challenge his decision.

“This is one instance in which the state can appeal,” Shaughnessy said. “I would encourage the state to do that to seek some clarity on exactly what this new law means. But, as I say, I believe my hands are tied.”

Third District Judge Todd Shaughnessy presiding over a hearing in Clara’s case on March 4, 2022.

Utah Supreme Court arguments

Peterson argued Clara didn’t actually shoot in self-defense.

“I think this is like every other case that this court and the court of appeals have reviewed, where somebody vindictively shot somebody in the back under a theory of, ‘I’m going to do him before he does me,’ or some species of that or based on previous threats,” Peterson said during Monday’s oral arguments. “Previous threats are never enough. This court’s case law is very clear about that.”

“The fact that he may have been shooting and he missed, or he was just shooting to warn them off or to stop the truck from coming back, I think that’s still absolutely justified,” Taliaferro said.

She also addressed the stray bullet that traveled through a nearby family’s vehicle.

“That wasn’t Mr. Clara’s fault,” she argued. “Mr. Clara was a victim here, too. And it’s not Mr. Clara that maybe caused danger to somebody else. It’s this assailant that kept ramming this truck.”

‘This could be a consequence’

In addition to questions about Clara’s case, some justices asked general questions about procedure under the new law and several questions about a scenario in which there is no witness to a murder, the suspect submits a claim of self-defense under the new law, but refuses to testify, which is within their Fifth Amendment right.

“At least now, at the pretrial conference, you have some — or the pretrial hearing — you have some proffered facts,” Taliaferro said. “So actually, that’s better for the state because now they’re not going to be surprised at trial with the self-defense.”

“They’re never going to get to trial, because it’s going to be dismissed under the statute,” Justice Diana Hagen responded.

Jon Michael Clara (left) and defense attorney Clayton Simms (right) participate in a virtual hearing on March 4, 2022.

She said that scenario represents a potential unintended consequence of HB227.

“I don’t know what the legislature intended,” Hagen said, “but it seems like this could be a consequence, whether intended or not.”

Supporters of the law argue that if the state cannot meet its burden of clear and convincing evidence in a pretrial hearing, it certainly cannot meet its heftier burden of beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, therefore, the case should be dismissed.

But Justice Paige Petersen pointed out that under the murder scenario, it would be much harder for prosecutors to prevail during the pretrial hearing that it would in a trial, where cross-examination of the defendant would be an option available to them.

“I think that would make a great movie or crime novel,” assistant solicitor general Peterson said of the scenario. “I don’t think it’s likely to be a common problem.”

Justice Petersen then shared the facts in the hypothetical Utah scenario are those of a real case in Florida, challenged under the statute that Utah’s self-defense law is modeled after.

“We have that in Jefferson v. State in Florida,” Petersen said. “It’s the exact hypothetical I gave. The defendant gave a story about why he stabbed his roommate. The state had no evidence about what happened in the apartment. And so just based on his story, case dismissed.”

While Taliaferro argued the district court was correct in dismissing the case against Clara, Peterson urged the justices to reverse the prior ruling.

A court spokesperson said it will likely be several months before the court issues its written opinion.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Self-defense or road rage? Utah Supreme Court hears arguments in case involving self-defense law