The fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center has spurred a second new attempt by Minnesota lawmakers to avoid the kind of confrontation that led to his death during a traffic stop earlier this month.
With just weeks left in the 2021 session, DFL lawmakers are proposing a change in how misdemeanor warrants are handled, in a bid to lessen the need for police to arrest those who miss court appearances for certain lower-level crimes.
"Although this bill may not solve all the specific issues relating to police brutality, this bill could have prevented Daunte Wright's death," said state Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, one of the bill's sponsors.
The bill, which cleared a Minnesota House committee on Tuesday, is the second new policy proposal sparked by Wright's killing. It would require judges to issue "sign and release" warrants instead of arrest warrants for certain offenses. Police who encounter people with those sign and release warrants in their name would provide written notice of a future court appearance in their cases in lieu of arrest.
Police said they pulled Wright over for expired registration, and then discovered that Wright had a warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons charge. Seconds after pulling away from officers as they tried to arrest him, Wright was fatally shot by former officer Kimberly Potter, who can be heard on video yelling, "Taser, Taser," before shooting Wright with her pistol.
The legislation comes after the House also recently passed a bill that would limit when police can stop motorists.
State Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the sign and release bill with Vang, said Tuesday that Wright may have been unaware of his outstanding warrant because a summons to appear in court was sent to the wrong address.
"The goal is to lessen the number of police interactions where they need to take someone into custody, to lower the temperature whenever possible," Long said.
Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott testified in favor of the proposal, citing the "need to work together to achieve meaningful reforms such that members of our community, when they interact with police, they don't end up dead."
It also has the support of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, whose offices already follow that practice.
Hennepin County had 21,426 active criminal warrants as of April 23, according to the State Court Administrator's Office. Of those, more than half were for misdemeanor offenses. In Ramsey County, more than a third of the county's 9,077 warrants were for misdemeanors.
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office saw its use of sign and release warrants rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dominick Mathews, the managing attorney of the adult prosecution division of the County Attorney's Office.
"I think the pandemic really made us rethink how we do things and why we do things," he said. "We're trying not to be a blanket approach. We're trying to look at each individual case."
As the bill stands now, it most likely would have meant that Wright would not have been arrested on the day of his death, said Mathews.
State Rep. Paul Novotny of Elk River was one of several Republicans who voted in favor of the proposal Tuesday. He defended it as a good public safety policy that would free up law enforcement to spend more time responding to emergencies.
An arrest warrant that isn't issued, he said, "is a trip that they don't have to make to jail, it is a report that they don't have to do and it leads them to be available to respond to emergency situations."
"It's the right thing to do because it's the right thing to do," added Novotny.
Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said Tuesday that people may fail to appear for scheduled court dates for a variety of reasons, "many of which disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color," such as lack of transportation access, child care needs and inability to take time off work.
Under the bill, judges would be required to issue a sign and release warrant if a defendant in the misdemeanor or select gross misdemeanor case had not previously failed to appear in the same case. Cases that do not qualify for such warrants include driving while impaired, assault, child abuse or criminal sexual conduct.
But Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, expressed skepticism over the bill's effectiveness and revived debate over the moments that led to Wright's death.
"It's unfortunate that he didn't comply and go to jail and things would have been a lot different," said Johnson, who added: "but it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback."
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul Democrat who chairs the House's Public Safety Committee, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the bill is being advanced even after legislative deadlines have passed because he wants to see it included in the final debates over the Legislature's competing public safety spending bills.
Mariani also took issue with what he described as an "obsession" with compliance in interactions with law enforcement.
"I certainly hope that there is no one in this body who thinks that what happened to Mr. Wright is the right thing for our laws, our state, our public safety to produce," Mariani said.
Staff writers Matt McKinney and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this story.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755