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Tim Steller's opinion: Voters should fire judge who fired gun
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Tim Steller's opinion: Voters should fire judge who fired gun

Adam Watters will not face charges.

But Watters, a Pima County justice of the peace, should face questions.

After all, this is someone who dons a robe and presides over a courtroom where he is supposed to ensure the rule of law prevails.

But does Watters himself really have faith in the rule of law? Or does he favor vigilantism? And does he really have the judgment to be a judge?

These and other questions arise in the wake of Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer’s decision not to charge Watters with a crime for firing a gun into the ground next to a man Watters suspected of harassment.

If Volkmer had chosen to pursue the charges, it would be easier to say without hesitation that Watters had crossed a line. Being charged is not the same as a conviction, but a judge shouldn’t be putting himself in the position of getting accused of a potential felony, especially like this.

Still, the facts of this case aren’t reassuring, with or without charges.

In February, someone began dumping garbage at Watters’ home in the Catalina Foothills. The first day, Watters and his family simply picked it up, Watters’ attorney, Michael Storie, told me. The next day, after more dumping, they called the Sheriff’s Department.

Then Watters’ tires were slashed. After Watters replaced his tires, they were slashed again.

Of course, Watters and his family felt threatened. And they continued to call the Sheriff’s Department, Storie said.

“They were reporting to the Sheriff’s Department every other day and getting varying levels of response,” he said.

It was obviously frustrating that the authorities didn’t take more action than increasing patrols around his house.

But then, on Feb. 14, Watters and his daughters set up a sort of ambush, sitting on lawn chairs in areas hidden by bushes. They sat outside, armed, waiting for the man to come by who they suspected of the harassment.

This alone makes you wonder. As frustrated and scared as Watters and his family may have been, setting up an ambush sounds like exactly the kind of dumb thing a person would do to win a date in Watters’ court.

It got worse. The man did come along. And Watters went out to the street, armed with a video-recording phone and a gun.

Storie told me his whole point was to get video of the person who was driving by and dropping trash, so the Sheriff’s Department would start taking action.

But seeing Watters yelling at him from the side of the street, the driver, Fei Qin, slowed down to a stop. He told officers he stopped to hear what Watters was saying, and that Watters walked up to his window.

A video taken by Watters shows that Watters walked up to the side of Qin’s car and confronted him, saying, “What are you doing (expletive)? What are you doing (expletive)? Get out of the car, get out of the car or I’m going to blow your head off!”

He demands that Qin get on the ground, and you can hear Qin say, “I don’t have to get on the ground.”

Watters says, “Yeah you do (expletive) or I’m going to shoot your head right off.”

Qin may have been the original instigator of the conflict, and he is facing a charge of felony stalking to which he has pleaded not guilty. But the video leaves little doubt that Watters was the aggressor in this confrontation.

Then he went beyond that and fired a shot. Watters alleges that Qin came toward him, but you can’t tell that from the video, and honestly it sounds like a cover story. The video makes it seem Watters was plenty angry to fire a “warning shot,” as he called it, without provocation.

Again, this is what you expect from a defendant in Watters’ court, not from the judge himself.

He’s lucky he’s not facing a felony charge. Volkmer told me it’s only because, under Arizona’s expansive self-defense law, the prosecution would have the burden of proving that Watters was not acting in defense of himself or others.

A jury would be unlikely to convict him in those circumstances, Volkmer said.

“Ultimately what we did hear is he was genuinely afraid,” he said.

That fear, if a jury considers it reasonable, is a trump card under Arizona law.

Watters is not done facing possible consequences from the incident. Storie said a complaint has been filed with the Arizona Judicial Conduct Commission.

And then there’s the ultimate judge in his case — the voters. If he stays in the job through 2022, and he decides to run for re-election, the voters in his district will have the choice.

They would be out of their minds to reelect somebody with this judge’s judgment.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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