A dog, a threat, a gun: Minneapolis case raises questions over what is terror

Kel-tec pistol manual
Kevin Lavern Briggs, who was acquitted of a terroristic threats charge, showed the manual of the pistol he was carrying at the time of the accusation.
Brandt Williams / MPR News

A couple walking their dog in northeast Minneapolis on a spring night last year say they turned around to see a man they had just passed on the sidewalk pointing a gun in their direction.

"I looked at him and said, 'Are you serious?'" said Gary Pahl, 29, in a transcribed interview with a Minneapolis police investigator. Pahl told the investigator the man, whom he described as an "older black gentleman" walking with a cane, told them, "I will shoot your f------ dog. I have a conceal and carry."

That gentleman, Kevin Briggs, 56, correctly stated that he had a permit to carry a handgun. But after this incident, a judge suspended Briggs' permit, and now he is trying to get both the permit and his gun back.

Earlier this month, a Hennepin County court jury acquitted Briggs of one felony count of "terroristic threats." Prosecutors alleged Briggs threatened violence with the purpose "of terrorizing others and/or in reckless disregard of the risk of causing terror" in Pahl and Danielle Engum, 28.

Briggs denies he used the 'F' word, but admitted he pointed his Kel-Tec 9 mm pistol in the dog's direction and threatened to shoot it.

According to a transcribed police interview, on April 1, 2013, Pahl and Engum were walking their dog along Fillmore Street in northeast Minneapolis. "We saw him [Briggs] coming towards us so we do as we always do with anyone, we walk out into the street to walk around him and then once we had passed him we got back on the sidewalk," Pahl told the investigator. Pahl said they waited until Briggs walked away toward a corner store before calling the police.

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Briggs says the couple passed him, but then circled back and stood four to five yards away from him. He says the two were talking to each other and not paying attention to the dog. Briggs says he pulled the gun on the dog in self defense when it reared up on its leash.

"When the dog rose up on me, I was startled, stunned...I couldn't even talk," said Briggs while standing on the service level of the Hennepin County Government Center recently. Briggs says he held the gun at waist level and pointed it downward as the dog went back down on all fours. A Navy veteran, Briggs uses a cane because of arthritis in both knees and bulging discs in his back and neck. He says he couldn't run to save his life.

"Like I said [on the stand during the trial], I didn't mean no malice or ill-will or anything against those people," said Briggs. "I was trying to protect myself from their dog. And that's all that was."

The case raises questions about whether the state's terroristic threats law applies to animals.

Briggs' public defender, Matthew Jaimet, tried to get the charge dismissed by arguing just that. In a pre-trial motion, he wrote, "The declaration of intention made by the Defendant to the complaining witnesses was specifically to shoot an animal, which would not amount to a felony assault or any other 'crime of violence' within the meaning of the statute."

He added, "The Defendant [Briggs] is aware that it would probably suit the complaining witnesses (and dog lovers everywhere) if the definition of the Terroristic Threats offense included animals as potential victims...However, that is not the law."

Hennepin County District Court Judge Gina Brandt disagreed with Jaimet's argument, and denied his motion. "The court finds this line of reasoning unpersuasive for two reasons," wrote Brandt. "One, both victims allege the gun was aimed in their direction, by itself an implicit threat, and two, the dog is the property of the victims, and as such a threat to shoot the dog is a threat to destroy their property consistent with the case law developing the statute under which the Defendant was charged."

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office provided a transcript of Judge Brandt's instructions to the jury, which included explanations of the elements of both terroristic threats and second degree assault. A person who points a firearm — loaded or not — at another person can be convicted of either crime.

Pahl told police during the interview he couldn't tell if Briggs was pointing the gun at anyone in particular, just that he was holding the gun low, about "torso level."

Briggs says he meant to keep the gun aimed low and in the dog's direction. In doing so, Briggs says he was acting responsibly and not with "reckless disregard" as the charge alleges.

"If I would have shot, it would have proved the dog stood up on me," said Briggs. "But I didn't shoot because, just in case I would have hit a rib bone in the dog, it could have ricocheted and hit one of those people."

The court suspended Briggs' permit and ordered him to surrender his gun to the Minneapolis Police Department before the trial. Briggs, who was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, once in 1993 and once in 1994, said he was told it may take a few months for him to get his gun back from the MPD. And he says he was told he'll have to reapply for a new permit, even though his current permit isn't supposed to expire until 2016. It's now been three weeks since his acquittal, and Briggs said he's frustrated about how long it's taking him to get his gun and his permit back.

Hamline Law Professor Joseph Olson, a gun rights advocate, said the suspension of Briggs' permit was only temporary, and Briggs shouldn't have to reapply for a new permit.

"Once he's acquitted, he's no longer charged with a crime that might render him ineligible [to carry a hand gun]. So the basis for the suspension goes away," said Olson.

According to a report from the BCA, a small number of people with permits committed crimes in 2012. Nearly half of the 296 crimes were DWIs or other traffic offenses. A very small number of permit holders were involved with gun-related crimes. There are 164,984 valid carry permits, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Olson, who is also a firearms trainer, said it sounds like Briggs acted properly when confronted with a dog pulling against its leash.

"Dogs pull out of their owners' grasp all the time," said Olson.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office contends the couple was in control of the dog and that Briggs was not in any danger.

Under state law, a person can be charged with making a terroristic threat whether that person brandishes a weapon or not. An MPR News analysis found that of the 465 gun-related cases allegedly committed and filed in Hennepin County District Court last year, 37 involved charges of terroristic threats.