SALT LAKE CITY — A West Valley City police officer who fired his gun at a fleeing vehicle in May was not legally justified in using such deadly force, according to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
It's the second time in two weeks that District Attorney Sim Gill has determined that an officer-involved shooting was not justified.
On May 24, West Valley police officer Jared Cardon was writing a traffic ticket near 3500 South and 5275 West. The road does not have a shoulder in that area, and traffic started to back up as Cardon wrote his ticket, Gill said.
Another vehicle apparently came up too fast on the stopped traffic and swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles. The vehicle drove onto a front yard and into a fence.
A family with young children were riding bikes in the area and leaning against the fence while they stopped. The mother of the group fell over on her bike because of the car hitting the fence.
The driver of the vehicle that caused the accident, Jose Contreras, got out and was confronted by bystanders and the husband of the woman who had been knocked down, according to the district attorney's report. Contreras then got back into his car and fled.
Cardon heard the commotion and started walking toward the accident. Just seconds later, he saw Contreras driving toward him.
The officer held up his hand to try and get the vehicle to stop. He then drew his weapon and waved it in front of the vehicle to convince the driver to stop.
"Cardon stated that the vehicle continued straight at him, and he concluded that the driver was determined to hit him. In response, Cardon fired two rounds at the vehicle in quick succession," according to Gill's report.
Cardon then fired a third shot at the tires as the car passed in an attempt to stop the vehicle.
"Cardon further stated that he felt it was an exigent circumstance to stop the driver from 'threatening my life, threatening the lives of other people that were in the area,'" the report states.
But while Cardon told the D.A.'s office that the car was coming toward him, other witnesses told investigators something different.
Anthony Thompson was in the car that Contreras nearly rear-ended before driving over the curb. Gill called Thompson's interview one of the most important in the investigation. Although he had every reason to be angry at Contreras, he told investigators that he did not see him drive toward the officer.
"When further questioned directly as to whether he saw the suspect vehicle make any movement toward the officer, Thompson stated, 'No, he didn’t. No, he was actually trying to avoid the officer,'" according to the report.
Thompson and other witnesses said Contreras was driving in the median to avoid Cardon and was not in the same lane as the officer, as the officer claimed. Witnesses said Cardon actually moved toward the fleeing vehicle, the report states.
Contreras later told investigators that he was not trying to hit Cardon. He was also asked why he kept driving.
"I don’t know. I thought I was gonna get shot. That’s the first thing that went through my head," he told investigators.
Based on numerous witness statements and the physical evidence, Gill said his office concluded Cardon's life was not in imminent danger as the officer had claimed.
"The car is clearly swerving around the officer based on civilian witnesses. It never went directly at him," Gill said.
Earlier this month, Gill found Salt Lake City police officer Matthew Giles was unjustified in firing eight times at a juvenile in a stolen car attempting to flee police. Giles' statements and the factual evidence did not add up, he said.
Gill said although both cases involved fleeing cars, both had completely different sets of facts. He said neither case is a reflection on any department or police as a whole.
Gill noted, however, that in Utah there is a very fact specific analysis of when the use of deadly force is justified, with a narrow set of terms. Shooting at a fleeing suspect to try and disable their vehicle and prevent them from getting away in itself is not grounds for using deadly force, he said.
"Nobody is saying a crime hasn't occurred," Gill said. "Nobody is saying the person isn't involved in criminal activity. When we allow for the use of deadly force, it has to be in some very specific circumstances. Just by the virtue of the fact you want to stop someone from escaping is not justification."
No criminal charges have been filed against Cardon or Giles, and it was unclear Monday if any would be.
West Valley Police Chief Buzz Nielsen released a brief statement following Gill's announcement, saying a dual investigation will continue.
“The result of today’s conclusion by the District Attorney’s Office has initiated a complete internal review of officer Cardon’s actions by this police department," Nielsen said.
Cardon remains on standard paid administrative leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.