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Report of Attorney General William J. Schneider on the Use of Deadly Force by State Police Trooper September 15, 2012
January 3, 2013
Facts In the late afternoon of September 15, 2012, State Police Trooper Kyle Wells shot at a vehicle being operated by Matthew Cole, 23, of Portland, in order to disable the vehicle. Neither Mr. Cole nor any other person was injured.
At around 5:30 p.m. on September 15, Trooper Wells was conducting a traffic safety detail at the Mile 44 southbound toll station of the Maine Turnpike in Scarborough. Trooper Wells was in uniform and had parked his marked cruiser at the parking area used by turnpike employees. Trooper Wells was standing on the tollbooth island that separates the two cash toll lanes; he was observing the traffic moving through those lanes.
Shortly before 5:39 P.M., Trooper Wells observed a silver Honda coupe approach one of the cash toll lanes. He noted that the Maine registration plate affixed to the front of the Honda coupe was displaying an expired registration sticker. Trooper Wells observed that the driver and sole occupant of the Honda, later identified as Matthew Cole, was a young adult male. After Mr. Cole paid the toll collector, Trooper Wells directed him to pull over near his cruiser. Rather than complying with the trooper’s instruction, Mr. Cole drove off at a high speed along the entrance ramp onto the Maine Turnpike. Trooper Wells ran to his cruiser, activated the emergency lights and siren, and radioed the Regional Communications Center (RCC) in Gray that a vehicle had taken off on him and of his intention to catch up with the vehicle. Trooper Wells’ cruiser was equipped with a camera system, which recorded both audio and video portions of the overall event.
While attempting to catch up with the Honda, Trooper Wells observed the vehicle fleeing southbound on the turnpike and weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed. He observed the Honda leave the turnpike at Exit 42. Trooper Wells followed the vehicle onto the exit ramp and came upon airborne debris. He saw the Honda off the paved surface of the road in a shallow earthen gully. Trooper Wells drove by the Honda and stopped about 35 feet beyond it. During the investigation of the incident, it was determined that Mr. Cole had lost control of the vehicle when he attempted to pass another vehicle on the exit ramp.
With his service weapon drawn, Trooper Wells approached the Honda and repeatedly told the driver, with whom he made eye contact, to shut off the engine and get out of the car. Ignoring the trooper’s instructions and in an apparent attempt to flee again, Mr. Cole placed the car in reverse and was trying to back the vehicle onto the ramp. The vehicle’s engine was racing and the vehicle’s rapid movement was causing gravel and other earthen debris to be thrown onto the roadway. Observing the vehicle coming toward him and also fearing that the vehicle would attempt to flee in the wrong direction on the ramp in the path of several other occupied vehicles, Trooper Wells fired several rounds at the vehicle in an attempt to disable it. When Trooper Wells shot at the vehicle, he was in the process of attempting to retreat from the approaching vehicle. The vehicle was within six feet of him when Trooper Wells fired at it, and Mr. Cole was attempting to negotiate his vehicle in a fashion that would have put the Honda against the flow of traffic in the wrong direction on the ramp. With the vehicle blocking the ramp but back on the pavement, Mr. Cole stopped the vehicle and submitted to custody. Mr. Cole was later charged with reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, attempting to elude a police officer, criminal speed, and violation of probation.
Analysis and Conclusion The Attorney General is charged by law with investigating any use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer while acting in the performance of the officer's duties. The sole purpose of the Attorney General’s investigation is to determine whether self-defense or the defense of others, as defined by law, is reasonably generated by the facts so as to preclude criminal prosecution. The review does not include whether there could be any civil liability, whether any administrative action is warranted, or whether the use of deadly force could have been averted.
Maine law defines deadly force as physical force that a person uses with the intent of causing, or that a person knows to create a substantial risk of causing, death or serious bodily injury. Further, in the specific context of a firearm, Maine law defines deadly force to include the intentional or reckless discharge of a firearm in the direction of another person or at a moving vehicle.
In addition to the legal justification for the use of deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others, a law enforcement officer is justified in limited circumstances in using deadly force to make an arrest or to prevent an escape. Specifically, an officer is justified in using deadly force under circumstances when the officer reasonably believes that the person has committed a crime involving the use or threatened use of deadly force, is using a dangerous weapon in attempting to escape, or otherwise indicates that the person is likely to seriously endanger human life or to inflict serious bodily injury unless apprehended without delay.
Whether a use of force is reasonable is based on the totality of the particular circumstances, and must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, allowing for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The analysis requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of a particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Attorney General William J. Schneider has concluded that at the time shots were fired at Mr. Cole by Trooper Wells, it was reasonable for Trooper Wells to believe that deadly force was imminently threatened against him, and it was reasonable for Trooper Wells to believe that it was necessary to use deadly force – shooting at the vehicle in attempt to disable it – to protect himself from the imminent threat of deadly force posed against him by Mr. Cole’s actions. Moreover, Attorney General Schneider determined that Trooper Wells reasonably believed that Mr. Cole had committed crimes involving the use of a motor vehicle in a manner that constituted deadly force, was using a dangerous weapon in attempting to escape, and was likely to seriously endanger human life unless apprehended without delay.
The Attorney General’s conclusions are based on an extensive scene investigation, interviews with numerous individuals, and review of all evidence made available from any source.