Let’s say you’re a security guard in a St. Paul housing complex and one night (or day), you chase down and apprehend a suspected thief in the driver’s seat of a stolen car. While removing him, your gun goes off, paralyzing him. Are you guilty of a crime?

A district court in Minnesota says “yes.” Today the Minnesota Supreme Court said not…. exactly.

This is the case of Tim Engle and it happened in November 2003. The Supreme Court sent it back to District Court today over the definition of the word “reckless,” as used in state law regarding “reckless discharge of a firearm.” (Read the opinion here.)

The Supreme Court ruled that “reckless” in driving cases (that is, an act that a person knows or should have known puts others in harm’s way) is different from “reckless” in cases like this, determining that “a person is said to act recklessly when he or she consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that an injury will occur, or when his or her action is grossly heedless of consequences.”

The case is a good example of how the application of the law — and a man’s future — can hinge on the definition of a single word.

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