AG Finds Deputy's Deadly Force In Gray Legally Justified

December 2, 2003

Attorney General Steven Rowe announced today that a Cumberland County deputy sheriff, James E. Ambrose, Jr., 44, was legally justified when he shot and wounded Steven A. Hanson, 25, in a vehicle in Gray, Maine, on the night of September 10, 2003.

The Attorney General's investigation focused on the issue of whether the use of deadly force by Deputy Ambrose in the particular situation was legally justified. The Attorney General is required by law to review all occurrences in which a law enforcement officer uses deadly force while in the performance of the officer's duties.

Under Maine law, for a law enforcement officer to be justified in using deadly force for purposes of self-protection, two requirements must be met. First, the officer must actually and reasonably believe that unlawful deadly force is being used or is imminently threatened against the officer. Second, the officer must actually and reasonably believe that the officer's use of deadly force is necessary to meet or counter that use of unlawful deadly force or that imminent threat of unlawful deadly force. (Maine law defines deadly force as physical force that a person uses with the intent of causing, or which the person knows to create a substantial risk of causing, death or serious bodily injury. With respect to a firearm, intentionally or recklessly discharging a firearm in the general direction of another person or at a moving vehicle is also deadly force under Maine law.)

Attorney General Rowe determined that, based on his office's investigation and legal analysis, Deputy Ambrose actually and reasonably believed that Steven Hanson was using unlawful deadly force against him and that deadly force on the deputy's part was necessary to protect himself from death or serious bodily injury. Therefore, both requirements of the law were met, and the use of deadly force by Deputy Ambrose was legally justified. The Attorney General reported the following findings from his office's investigation:

On September 10, 2003, shortly after 11 p.m., Cumberland County deputy sheriffs Jennifer Gage and James Ambrose were dispatched to a market in Gray due to the activation of a burglar alarm at that market. The deputies investigated and determined that a cleaning crew had accidentally activated the alarm. The investigation completed, Deputy Ambrose then left the market, while Deputy Gage remained behind to await the arrival of someone to reset the alarm. As Deputy Ambrose was leaving the immediate area of the market, he observed a dark-colored vehicle with a headlight out traveling south on Route 100. Deputy Ambrose positioned his marked cruiser behind the vehicle, a blue two-door sedan, and activated the cruiser's emergency lights in order to stop the vehicle for the vehicle defect.

The vehicle stopped in response to Deputy Ambrose's signal. Deputy Ambrose observed four occupants in the vehicle, two in the front and two in the rear. When he reached the vehicle on foot, the three male passengers appeared to him to be feigning being asleep. The driver's door window was down approximately six inches, and loud music was playing. Deputy Ambrose asked the male driver to turn off the music and engine; and the driver, later identified as Steven A. Hanson, complied with the request. Deputy Ambrose was immediately suspicious of the occupants of the vehicle, based on his observation of the passengers appearing to feign sleep and the driver's positioning of his window. Deputy Ambrose asked Hanson for his driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Through the partially-opened window, Hanson provided Ambrose with a document unrelated to the deputy's request. Ambrose asked the driver his name, and the driver responded verbally, but Deputy Ambrose was unable to understand the response because of the driver's "garbled, thick and slurred" speech. Additionally, Deputy Ambrose observed that the driver's eyes were bloodshot, that a cooler was situated between the two passengers in the rear, and that a strong odor of alcoholic beverage was detectable coming from the inside of the sedan. Deputy Ambrose believed the driver was highly intoxicated.

Deputy Ambrose left the window of the sedan and went to the rear of the sedan to use his portable radio to request backup assistance from Deputy Gage, who Ambrose knew was still close by. Deputy Ambrose returned to the driver's window again, and directed all the occupants of the vehicle to show him identification. Through the partially opened window, the driver produced a crumpled birth certificate. At about the same time, Deputy Ambrose looked at the front of the vehicle on the driver's side and observed "fresh damage" to the vehicle that included a missing mirror on the driver's door and damage to the left front fender.

Deputy Ambrose returned to the position behind the driver's side rear doorjamb with his flashlight in his right hand just in time to observe the driver reinsert the key in the ignition and start the engine. Believing the operator intended to flee, and believing that the driver posed an immediate and significant risk to other motorists as well as to the other three occupants of the vehicle, Ambrose jerked open the driver's door and leaned into the interior of the vehicle, while simultaneously attempting to reach for both the break pedal with his right foot and the keys on the steering column with his right hand. At that moment, the driver applied the accelerator, causing the car to lurch forward, taking Deputy Ambrose with it. Ambrose found himself precariously positioned, his upper body and right leg in the car, his left leg being dragged along the pavement at approximately 15 to 20 mph. Deputy Ambrose commanded the driver a number of times to stop, but the commands went unheeded.

Deputy Ambrose then unholstered his weapon with his left hand (because the deputy is left-handed, his holster is on his left side), and although unable to actually aim from his awkward position, directed the barrel as best he could toward the driver. He then warned the driver that if he did not stop the vehicle, he would shoot. The warning was repeated at least three times, but the warnings again went unheeded. Deputy Ambrose then discharged the weapon several times. Thereafter, Ambrose suddenly fell from the vehicle, landing face down on the roadway. The vehicle's left rear tire ran over the deputy's left leg. From the roadway, Deputy Ambrose fired several more times at the vehicle as it picked up speed, the driver's door still partially open. Although it is not clear as to the point it occurred prior to Ambrose discharging his weapon, the driver tried to dislodge Ambrose from the vehicle by striking him multiple times in the side of the head with his fist.

Deputy Gage, having observed Deputy Ambrose being dragged, falling to the pavement, and shooting at the vehicle, pulled her cruiser up beside Deputy Ambrose on the roadway to check on his condition. Ambrose told Gage to pursue the fleeing vehicle. Deputy Gage immediately did so, activating her emergency equipment. The driver pulled over and stopped a few hundred feet further south on Route 100. Deputy Gage took control of the occupants. In the meantime, Deputy Ambrose drove his cruiser to Gage's location, and assisted Deputy Gage in securing the occupants of the vehicle. Other officers then arrived.

Deputy Ambrose and Hanson were transported to the Maine Medical Center for treatment. Hanson was treated for a single gunshot wound to the left shoulder. Deputy Ambrose was treated for the injury to his left leg; it was noted that his jaw was bruised. Hanson was later charged by the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office with aggravated assault and assaulting a police officer.

The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office cooperated fully in the investigation. Assisting with the investigation were detectives and forensic specialists of the Maine State Police. In addition to the criminal investigation conducted by the Attorney General's Office, the Sheriff's Office conducted its own internal review and investigation of the incident.