A Carson City resident who sparked a grand jury investigation will have to face felony assault charges for shooting at a man he was trying to arrest.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday said Rolland "Ron" Weddell, a building contractor, went beyond the law when he attempted to use deadly force in making a citizen's arrest in October 1997.
The opinion authored by Justice Deborah Agosti reverses a ruling by former District Judge Mike Fondi and reinstates charges of assault with a deadly weapon and discharging a firearm at another person filed by the District Attorney's Office.
If convicted, Weddell, 55, could face up to four years in prison.
Agosti pointed out the Nevada Legislature "indicated its disapproval of the use of deadly force by private persons" in 1993 by repealing the old common law "fleeing felon rule." She said lawmakers at the same time strictly limited the use of deadly force by police officers as well.
"The Legislature could not have meant to repose what might easily amount to vigilante justice in the hands of private persons while restricting the use of force in making an arrest by those who are charged by law with duties of public safety and protection," the opinion states.
The opinion also signed by justices Miriam Shearing and Bob Rose says a private person may use no more force than necessary and reasonable in making an arrest.
"We further hold that deadly force is, as a matter of law, unreasonable, unless the deadly force is used in defense of self or others against a threat of serious bodily injury."
Carson District Attorney Noel Waters said the ruling supports his argument that a citizen can use deadly force to protect himself and family from imminent danger but that only police officers can use deadly force to take some one into custody.
Waters said the decision should help dispose of Weddell's federal civil rights lawsuit claiming his rights were violated by his arrest.
"It should have an impact on that case since the opinion says he wasn't wrongfully arrested," he said.
Weddell also petitioned for a grand jury to investigate the actions of several public officials in handling the subsequent investigation. The grand jury indicted Deputy District Attorney Anne Langer, as well as the man Weddell was try8ing to arrest and his brother.
Weddell, a Carson City contractor who has offices in Las Vegas, said the Supreme Court's decision is illogical.
"What the court is saying is that you're not permitted to use deadly force in making an arrest, but they don't provide any law that prohibits it," he said.
He said citizens have historically had the right in common law to use deadly force to make an arrest and that there's nothing in Nevada law changing that.
He said since the opinion was signed by a three-member panel of the court, he expects he and his lawyer will ask that the case be revisited by the entire seven-member high court.
Weddell said the case started when James Bustamonte and another person tried to run down one of his employees with a truck, demanding to know where Weddell's daughter was. He said they were looking for his daughter regarding an alleged drug transaction, and he reported the entire incident to police.
Unsatisfied with how the Sheriff's Department handled his complaint, Weddell tracked down Bustamonte and called for deputies. When they didn't arrive, he attempted to arrest Bustamonte himself.
When Bustamonte fled, Weddell shot at him four times but missed.
Weddell was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. When the case reached district court, Fondi dismissed the charges saying Nevada law permits private persons to arrest a felon. Fondi added that "an individual has the right to use whatever force is necessary to effect the arrest of a fleeing felon."
Waters appealed to the high court, arguing that lawmakers specifically removed that authority from Nevada law.
The high court agreed.
"Weddell has no absolute common law or statutory right to use deadly force in making an arrest," the opinion states. "Weddell's use of deadly force to make an arrest was unreasonable, as a matter of law, unless he was threatened with serious bodily injury to himself or others."
The high court did say the state has the burden to prove the use of deadly force was not reasonable and necessary when the case gets to trial.
Waters said he thinks there's ample evidence Weddell didn't need to defend himself against Bustamonte.
"There were at least the other four witnesses who testified they simply didn't see any sign of force being used by Bustamonte," he said. "All they saw was hands in the air, then a fanny headed in the other direction."
In the meantime, Waters said the criminal case will wait until Weddell exhausts his remedies before the Supreme Court and that he has no intention of arresting him.
Weddell has two weeks to seek a rehearing or a hearing before the whole court.