Tyler Leibfried waited roughly 10 seconds between hearing two loud bangs and firing several shots through the closed door of a downtown Duluth apartment, wounding an unarmed man inside.
That pause emerged as a central issue at a Thursday hearing on the Duluth police officer's bid to toss felony charges of intentionally and recklessly discharging a firearm in the September incident that left 23-year-old Jared Fyle with a bullet lodged in his back.
Leibfried's attorney filed a motion for dismissal in January, claiming he was justified in responding to a perceived threat under the established legal standard for use of deadly force by a police officer. But a prosecutor maintains Leibfried exhibited "poor judgment" and did not act reasonably in shooting through the door out of fear.
While she had few questions for attorneys, Judge Sally Tarnowski appeared to be focusing in on the duration of time Leibfried waited between hearing what he believed to be gunshots and responding with his own service weapon.
"Is there any case law that talks about how long he can wait?" Tarnowski asked defense attorney Paul Engh. "Can he wait an hour?"
Engh didn't put a time limit on it, but suggested Leibfried acted appropriately in seeking to assess the situation and only shooting once he heard what he believed to be the racking of a firearm inside.
"The case law speaks to an instantaneous reactions," Engh said. "Ten seconds qualifies, frankly."
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin disagreed. He said there "might have been an argument" had Leibfired fired the moment he heard the banging noises. But he stressed the delay, saying the officer paused long enough to see that no bullets had come from the apartment.
Importantly, Rubin said, after firing the first volley, Leibfried paused another 6 seconds, heard Fyle scream out in pain, and then fired two additional rounds into the apartment.
"What facts did Mr. Leibfried know at the time?" Rubin posed to the court. "He knew there was maybe this one guy in the apartment. He had no knowledge of any firearms. He wasn't there to arrest him. He hears two (noises) that sound like gunshots. Does he have any facts as to what direction the gunshots were going? Where were they? Were they out a window? Why is it reasonable for him to think that someone inside there is shooting at him?"
According to documents filed in State District Court, Leibfried and fellow officer Cory Lindsholm were called to the Kingsley Heights Apartments, 105 W. First St., on the night of Sept. 12 for a possible domestic disturbance. They determined there was no cause for an arrest, but headed up to Fyle's third-floor unit to help retrieve some belongings for his girlfriend.
Both officers later told Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators that they heard two gunshot-like noises, which were later determined to have likely been from Fyle forcibly shoving or kicking the door closed.
Engh asserted that Leibfried, 29, of Hermantown, was justified under the U.S. Supreme Court's "reasonable officer standard" in firing as soon as he heard the bangs and believed his life to be in danger. Leibfried, who served in the Army Reserves, used the military term "fatal funnel" to describe the narrow hallway that left little room for he and his partner to safely maneuver.
The defense attorney attempted to draw parallels between Leibfried's case and the 1990 murder of Duluth police Sgt. Gary Wilson at the Seaway Hotel, along with the two FBI agents killed serving a warrant in Miami recently.
"This was extraordinarily dangerous," Engh said. "There was a call for a domestic assault. Police officers are killed through shots fired via doorways and walls."
Rubin, a prosecutor for 40 years, worked with Wilson and responded to the crime scene and hospital on the night of his death. He said he "can't think of any job that is more dangerous than a police officer," but contended that Leibfried's conduct was outside the scope of "objectively reasonable."
The county attorney asked Tarnowski to compare Leibfried's response to that of Lindsholm, who backed up to take cover from the suspected gunfire, later telling investigators he didn't shoot because "I wasn't going to start putting rounds into this apartment just on a guess."
"Would a reasonable officer have waited, aimed at the door for 10 seconds, and then fired four rounds, wait 6 seconds and then fire two more?" Rubin asked. "Or would a reasonable officer have backed up, protected himself, taken cover and been there to determine, reasonably, what the next measure should be?"
Police officials determined that Leibfried, a five-year veteran, violated use-of-force policies and said he would remain "off duty indefinitely." He remained employed as of late January, city officials acknowledged in response to a data request. Under Minnesota law, a disciplinary action only becomes public upon "final disposition," after any grievance rights are exhausted.
Some two dozen observers, including many fellow Duluth police officers, joined Thursday's hearing, which was conducted via Zoom videoconferencing. The case is believed to be the first time an area officer has been charged in an on-duty shooting.
Tarnowski took the motion under advisement and is expected to issue a written ruling.