PORTSMOUTH, Va. – When a man heard noises in his backyard and heard the back door handle click, he ushered his family upstairs, grabbed his gun and prepared to defend himself.
Brandon Watson remembers his wife seeing “guys in all black” approaching the house; when he couldn’t immediately find a phone to call 911, he instead ran back downstairs with his legally purchased gun.
Watson recalls warning the intruders, “Who is that? I have a gun,” and immediately finding “two red laser beams” trained on his chest.
He then fired a warning shot through a window, and ran across the street to get help from his neighbor, a Virginia State Police deputy.
As he ran out of the house, however, he discovered a shocking bit of news: he had just shot a police officer.
“As I came out of the house…they said, ‘Who just fired the shot out the back window?’” Watson recalls. “I said I did…and I was holding a gun, and they said, ‘put down the gun.’”
The dark figures in his backyard had been Portsmouth police officers who had not announced themselves.
“I said, ‘An officer? Nobody came to my door. What do you mean an officer? I didn’t know there were any officers in my backyard,” he remembers.
The incident occurred on January 3, 2013; it wasn’t until September that it was announced that police had been in the wrong backyard at the time of the nighttime incident. A neighbor had called 911 because she heard unrelated noises in the downstairs of her own home; officers mistakenly approached Watson’s house instead of hers.
Although Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle Mobley admits that Watson did not know the people in his backyard were police, he prosecuted him for misdemeanor reckless handling of a firearm.
Watson was found guilty, but appealed the decision. When a second judge declared a mistrial, Watson chose to have a jury trial.
“This can’t be doing your job,” Watson argued. “You come into my backyard, try to open my door, open my window and flash red laser beams on my chest because you thought I was the burglar, and I thought you were the burglar.”
After deliberating for only 47 minutes, the seven-person jury found Watson not guilty.
The jury stated that Watson had showed restraint by firing only one shot, and noted that officers’ claims that “they had their weapons pointed at the ground at all times” were contradicted by the red beams Watson claims had been focused on his chest.
In the aftermath of the case, Portsmouth police have adjusted their policy and have removed the red gun laser sights from their weapons.
For Watson, recovering from the incident was no easy task: he spent 10 months unemployed.
“I begged them not to charge me,” Watson said. “I knew what it meant…I got no jobs…no one would hire me after they ran the criminal background check, because I was charged with reckless handling of a firearm.”
He is now looking into claiming negligence or gross negligence in a lawsuit against the city of Portsmouth.