Synopsis - On August 17, 2014, Steven Piirainen, 52, was shot and killed in an exchange of gunfire with police officers in Mexico, Maine. The Office of the Attorney General investigated the incident to determine whether the officers acted in self-defense or in defense of others at the time they used deadly force. The facts in this case support a finding of self-defense. Facts
Late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 17, 2014, Steven Piirainen arrived at the Passenger Rail Restaurant & Bar in Norway, Maine. He ordered a shot of whiskey, drank it quickly, and sat at the bar talking with the bartender, who was a friend of his. He asked to borrow her car but was turned down because the bartender knew Mr. Piirainen's driver's license was suspended. However, she offered to give him a ride. Mr. Piirainen went outside while the bartender asked permission from the owner of the restaurant to leave early so she could give Mr. Piirainen a ride. The restaurant owner looked out the window and saw Mr. Piirainen walking towards the owner's own pickup truck. He remembered that he had left the keys in the ignition of the truck, so he quickly left the building to get his keys, only to see Mr. Piirainen getting into his pickup.
The owner ran toward the vehicle, yelling at Mr. Piirainen to get out of his truck. He grabbed the driver's door handle but the door was locked.1 The owner jumped into the bed of the truck as it sped out of the parking lot with Mr. Piirainen at the wheel. The owner pounded on the rear window, yelling at Mr. Piirainen to stop. He saw that Mr. Piirainen was holding a pistol in his right hand and watched as Mr. Piirainen pulled the slide of the pistol back, released it,2 and pointed the gun back toward him in the bed of the truck. The owner dropped to a prone position in the bed of the truck as Mr. Piirainen fired the gun.3 As the vehicle turned onto another street about a half mile from the restaurant, the owner jumped out of the bed of the truck. State Police Trooper Jason Wing, in the area on an unrelated matter, saw the stolen truck approach the intersection at a high rate of speed. He saw a man jump out of the bed of the truck onto the roadway as the truck turned onto Alpine Street. Trooper Wing, driving a marked State Police cruiser, tried to catch up to the truck but was unsuccessful. He went back to the intersection to offer aid to the man who had jumped from the truck and learned that Mr. Piirainen had stolen the truck and that Mr. Piirainen had shot at the owner after he jumped into the bed of the truck as it was fleeing. Trooper Wing alerted the State Police and the Oxford County Sheriff's Office. About 15 minutes later, Mr. Piirainen, still driving the stolen pickup truck, arrived at his mother's residence in South Paris where he had been living. Seeming to be in a hurry, he ignored questions from his mother about the pickup truck, went into the basement, and quickly returned holding a flannel shirt that appeared to be concealing an object of some sort. Mr. Piirainen told his mother, "I have to get out of here," and he drove away in the truck. Forty minutes after leaving the residence in South Paris, Mr. Piirainen drove the stolen pick-up truck up to the gas pumps at a gas station in North Jay. A teenage attendant noticed that the vehicle's fuel hatch was open and its fuel cap was hanging. As the attendant approached the vehicle, the driver got out and walked toward the vehicle's fuel hatch. The attendant, suspecting that the driver did not know that the facility was a full service station, spoke to the driver who asked for $20.00 worth of gasoline. The driver returned to the vehicle and the attendant finished pumping the gas. As the attendant approached the driver's side of the vehicle for payment, the vehicle sped off. The attendant recorded the license plate of the vehicle and the police were notified of the theft of the gasoline. A dispatcher at the Franklin County Regional Communications Center (RCC) recognized the suspect vehicle as the one reported stolen in Norway and notified surrounding police agencies.
Dixfield Police Officer Dustin Broughton was aware of the armed vehicle theft in Norway and was aware that the suspect had shot at the vehicle's owner in the bed of the truck. He also knew at this point that the suspect vehicle was the same as the one involved in the "gas drive-off" in North Jay and that the vehicle was last seen traveling on U.S. Route 4 in the direction of U.S. Route 2. 4 Officer Broughton drove to Route 2 and turned east. Within minutes, he observed the suspect vehicle heading west on Route 2. Officer Broughton turned around to pursue the vehicle and activated the cruiser's emergency lights and siren, and the suspect vehicle pulled over and stopped. 5 Officer Broughton stopped, but when he got out of his cruiser, the vehicle drove off. The Piirainen vehicle continued west on Route 2 at a lawful speed, slowing down as it traveled into downtown Dixfield.
State Police Trooper Paul Casey was on Route 2 and joined the pursuit behind Officer Broughton. As the chase approached the Mexico town line, a Mexico officer, Dean Benson, joined the pursuit. Officer Benson became the third cruiser in line behind Trooper Casey. All three cruisers were displaying blue lights and sounding sirens. Meanwhile, Rumford Police Sergeant Douglas Maifeld prepared to deploy a spike mat 6 on a straight stretch of road in Mexico. As the pickup truck got closer, Sergeant Maifeld deployed the spike mat across Route 2. The truck drove directly over the spike mat, and at that moment, Trooper Casey, who was overtaking Officer Broughton's cruiser, saw Mr. Piirainen fire his pistol through the closed passenger window of the truck in the direction of Sgt. Maifeld.7 Trooper Casey and Officer Benson, in their separate cruisers, overtook Officer Broughton's cruiser and continued the pursuit. Trooper Casey reported that the spike mat deflated a tire on the suspect vehicle. Officer Broughton resumed the lead in the pursuit, followed, respectively, by Trooper Casey and Officer Benson.
The suspect vehicle traveled just under a mile on the deflated tire. As it approached the Circle K gas station on Main Street in downtown Mexico, the vehicle stopped abruptly in a diagonal position across the roadway, partially blocking both travel lanes and ending the chase.8 Officer Broughton came to an abrupt stop in the opposite (eastbound) lane of travel. Officer Benson, who had also driven his cruiser into the opposite lane of travel, which placed him directly behind Officer Broughton, was unable to stop his cruiser in time and crashed into the rear of Officer Broughton's cruiser. The combination of the crash and hitting his head momentarily disoriented Officer Broughton. He immediately heard gunshots coming from the suspect vehicle and heard the bullets striking his police vehicle. Officer Broughton ducked behind the dash of his cruiser for protection. At one point, he saw a bullet strike the lower right hand corner of his windshield.9 He also heard gunshots coming from behind him and assumed that Officer Benson and Trooper Casey were shooting at the suspect. He waited for the shooting to stop before getting out of his cruiser.
The collision between the two cruisers caused the airbag in Officer Benson's cruiser to deploy and strike Officer Benson in the face. He was momentarily dazed and unable to see out of the windshield, but he heard gunfire and concluded that Mr. Piirainen was firing at him and the other officers. Fearful that a bullet would penetrate his cruiser's windshield, Officer Benson got out of the cruiser with his patrol rifle. He believed at the time that Officer Broughton was either pinned down in his cruiser or that he had been shot. Officer Benson went to the rear of Officer Broughton's cruiser and fired at Mr. Piirainen. Officer Benson saw Mr. Piirainen in the pickup and heard gunfire coming from that location. Officer Benson also heard gunfire coming from Trooper Casey's direction, which was behind and to the right of his position.
After seeing the suspect vehicle "screeching down the road," turning to the left and stopping in the center of the roadway, Trooper Casey stopped his cruiser in the westbound lane, parallel to Officer Benson's cruiser in the eastbound lane. He heard multiple gunshots and determined that the gunshots were coming at him and at the other officers from the now motionless pickup truck. He heard bullets striking the cruisers, and he observed a round penetrate the windshield on the passenger side of his own cruiser. 10 Trooper Casey "rolled" from his cruiser onto the pavement. He did not have time to place the cruiser in park, and the cruiser moved forward and made contact with the Mexico cruiser. Trooper Casey crawled back into his cruiser to get his rifle. He then moved to the rear of his cruiser from where he could see Mr. Piirainen leaning almost to his waist outside the window of the pickup truck driver's door. 11 He fired at Mr. Piirainen, who retreated into the cab of the pickup truck. Trooper Casey moved to another location with an improved vantage point. The suspect vehicle remained at the center of the street.
As more police officers arrived and attempted to communicate with Mr. Piirainen, Trooper Casey maintained his position from where he could see Mr. Piirainen's left arm moving near the driver's side window. The attempts to communicate with Mr. Piirainen continued for approximately 30 minutes after the exchange of gunfire. During this time, at least one citizen witness heard the police telling Mr. Piirainen that they knew he was injured and urging him to surrender. The witness saw Mr. Piirainen display a middle finger and spin the rear tires of the truck until white smoke engulfed the area. This motion resulted in the pickup truck moving forward and coming to rest against a guard post near the fuel pumps of the Circle K gas station.
When more attempts to communicate with Mr. Piirainen got no response and no further movement was seen inside the cab of the truck for some time, officers approached the vehicle and found that Mr. Piirainen was dead. The next day, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, the state's chief medical examiner, conducted a postmortem examination and autopsy. He determined that Mr. Piirainen died from two gunshot wounds to the chest and neck from rounds fired by Trooper Casey. The examination also disclosed three superficial gunshot injuries to the skin of the back from rounds fired by Officer Benson. Toxicology results determined Mr. Piirainen's blood-alcohol content to be 0.128%. Narcotic drugs commonly prescribed for pain, and psychoactive drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety and depression were also present in his system.
The gun used by Mr. Piirainen was a 9mm Czech-made semi-automatic pistol. When retrieved from the floor of the front passenger's seat of the pickup truck, it was charged and contained nine rounds in the magazine. An empty magazine was on the floor of the truck. Also in the cab of the pickup truck were two boxes of 9mm ammunition and 37 additional loose live rounds on the seat and floor of the truck.
Mr. Piirainen, a convicted felon who was prohibited by state and federal law from possessing a firearm, had an extensive criminal history dating back to 1979, including convictions in Maine for robbery, burglary, criminal mischief, aggravated assault, violation of a protection order, domestic violence assault, several convictions for theft, and the commission of various crimes that resulted in either probation or bail being revoked. At the time of the events of August 17th, Mr. Piirainen was on probation as a result of a conviction for domestic violence assault in March 2014. He was also on bail as a result of an arrest in Norway on July 30, 2014, for aggravated criminal mischief, theft, burglary of a vehicle, and criminal trespass. He violated probation by not reporting that arrest to his probation officer. In addition, Mr. Piirainen was driving on a revoked operator's license, having been declared a habitual offender in March 2014, with a record of 25 motor vehicle violations.
Discussion, Analysis and Conclusion
The Attorney General is charged by law with investigating any incident in which a law enforcement officer uses deadly force while acting in the performance of the officer's duties. 5 M.R.S. §200-A. The investigators in the Office of the Attorney General are independent and are unaffiliated with any of the departments involved in the incident of August 17, 2014.
The purpose of the Attorney General's investigation of the incident in Mexico on August 17, 2014, was to determine whether self-defense, including the defense of others, as defined by law, was reasonably generated by the facts so as to preclude criminal prosecution of the officers who shot Mr. Piirainen. The review did not include an analysis of potential civil liability, of whether any administrative action might be warranted, or of whether the use of deadly force could have been averted.
Under Maine law, for any person, including a law enforcement officer, to be permitted to use deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others, two requirements must be met. First, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is imminently threatened against the person or against someone else; and, second, the person must actually and reasonably believe that deadly force is necessary to counter that imminent threat.
By law, whether the use of force by a law enforcement officer 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 given situation. The legal analysis requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each case, including the severity of the crime threatened or committed and whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of others.
Attorney General Janet T. Mills concludes that at the time Officer Benson and Trooper Casey shot Mr. Piirainen, they reasonably believed that unlawful deadly force was being used against them and other persons within range of the weapon brandished by Mr. Piirainen. It was reasonable for each officer to believe it necessary to use deadly force to protect himself and others from deadly force. The Attorney General's conclusions are based on an extensive forensic investigation, on interviews with numerous individuals, and on a review of all evidence made available from any source. All facts point to the conclusion that the officers in this case acted in self-defense.
It is beyond the scope of this report and beyond the authority and expertise of this office to determine Steven Piirainen's motivations, his state of mind, or the medical or psychological underpinnings of his behavior and actions on August 17, 2014.
1 The particular model includes a feature that automatically locks the doors when the vehicle is placed in gear.
2 This action is consistent with chambering a round from the magazine thus making the weapon ready to fire.
3 Later examination of the truck revealed a bullet hole through the roof of the cab.
4 Route 4 intersects with Route 2 and leads into Dixfield. Route 2 is a major east-west highway in Maine, extending from Gilead on the New Hampshire border to Houlton on the Canadian border. It is heavily traveled, particularly in the summer months, includes significant truck traffic, and passes through dense residential and commercial sections of towns in Oxford County and southern Franklin County, including Mexico and Dixfield.
5 The location of the traffic stop on Route 2 was about 16 miles or about 20 minutes travel time from the gas station in North Jay.
6 A portable tire deflation device consisting of hollow spikes that puncture and slowly release air from tires and that is deployed and retracted manually.
7 Sgt. Maifield, occupied with retrieving the spike mat from the roadway to allow the cruisers to pass, did not realize that Mr. Piirainen had shot at him. However, video recorded at the time by his cruiser camera clearly shows Mr. Piirainen raise, point, and fire the gun at him.
8 The total distance of the pursuit on Route 2 from Dixfield to Mexico was about 7.5 miles.
9 Later investigation revealed that this round entered the cruiser and struck the back of the front passenger seat.
10 the 9mm spent round was later found inside the cruiser.
11 This observation was also made by several citizen witnesses and supported by evidence collected at the scene.