SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A well-known community activist is now facing seven felony charges after firing his gun at the driver of a stolen plow truck that hit his car at least two times. His attorney said he acted out of self-defense, but county prosecutors said they believe he used excessive force.
Back on the evening of November 23, Michael Clara told Salt Lake City Police he was driving with a passenger in his car near 900 West 100 South when the driver of a stolen plow truck crashed into them and caused their car to spin around.
“A pickup truck started ramming my vehicle at a low speed. I started to pull over to get out of his way and he followed me and continued ramming. Then I got back into traffic to get away, he rammed my vehicle again and it spun around. He then rammed the passenger side and stayed there,” Clara wrote in the police report.
Investigators who reviewed dashcam video from Clara’s car said he was hit at least two times in the back. Documents stated neither Clara or his passenger knew the driver.
“It was escalating. They had already rammed his car. They were turning back around and going to run at him again and he was in fear of him and the life of his passenger,” said Clayton Simms, Clara’s criminal defense attorney.
Simms said Clara, who is a concealed carry permit holder, pulled out his gun and fired in the direction of the truck because he thought ‘it was going to turn around and come back at him.’ Clara told officers he was ‘aiming at the pavement towards the back of the truck to keep the truck away.’ A witness told investigators they saw the truck ram Clara’s car multiple times and Clara shooting at the truck.
“You have a second amendment right to possess a firearm and you have a right to use that in self-defense. That’s exactly what happened here,” said Simms.
In arresting documents, Salt Lake City Police said the truck was several feet away and facing the opposite direction when Clara fired. Officers said one of the bullets struck another car with three people inside, who were not injured. Police said they determined that Clara was unlawful in firing his gun and arrested him.
The stolen plow truck fled the scene and was located a short time later, but the driver has not been found.
“It’s really unfortunate that they didn’t focus on the person who stole the truck, who assaulted Michael and his passenger. They focused on him. They focused on the wrong person,” said Simms.
Clara, who is the community organizer for the Crossroads Urban Center and previous Salt Lake City School board member, declined to comment about the case in an on-camera interview, but wrote on Facebook:
“My message is I believe the police were wrong to arrest me. Nevertheless, I did not argue with them or resist in any way. I was compliant and submitted to all their requests. In return, they were professional and courteous to me. I know that there will be other forums in the legal system to review my actions that night. The police applied their subjective judgement and I can respect that. In other words, I wasn’t going to act to protect my life and that of my friend, only to turn around and put my life and that of the police in jeopardy an hour later because of an arrest. So, in my book, that’s how it is done in Salt Lake City. I am not embittered. I still have the highest regard for the SLCPD.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors with the Salt Lake County District Attorney filed seven charges of felony discharge of a firearm against Clara.
“Based on what we’ve learned, I can see why Mr. Clara would have been alarmed from the events,” said Chief Deputy Jeff Hall with the Salt Lake County District Attorney. “But the information we have caused us to believe that the use of force was not lawful in this situation. We don’t have a reason to believe that the snow plow was continuing to come after Mr. Clara or otherwise presume a threat to him.”
But Hall emphasized that his office has the burden of proof in court and Clara should be presumed innocent of these charges.
“In all of these criminal cases, anyone who is accused of wrongdoing is always presumed innocent. There’s no burden on a defendant to offer an explanation or a defense. It’s always up to use to prove these allegations and they are just allegations at this point,” he said.
Simms said Clara plans to plead ‘not guilty’ at his upcoming arraignment on December 31. If the case makes it all the way to trial, he said he’s confident a jury will dismiss Clara of any wrongdoing.
“Michael’s position is he would rather go to court and fight that case out than go to his funeral. I think he looked back at that and thinks that shooting that gun saved his life and the life of his passenger,” said Simms.
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