An Augusta police officer did not use excessive force when in 2015 she shot and wounded a mentally ill man who was wielding a knife with which he had cut himself.

That was the decision by a jury Friday in a federal civil lawsuit filed against Officer Laura Drouin.

Drouin fired three shots at Jason Begin, now 41, then an outpatient of Riverview Psychiatric Center, after he became angry when he was told he would be recommitted to the state psychiatric hospital. He cut his arm with a folding 7-inch-long knife and, investigators said, pointed it at a member of his treatment team.

Begin, through attorneys Brad Pattershall and Matthew Bowe, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, claiming his civil rights had been violated and seeking $2.5 million in damages. The city of Augusta also was named in the suit but was dismissed from it previously.

A jury deliberated for an hour and 10 minutes Friday after hearing the case in Bangor, and it ruled that Drouin did not use excessive force in violation of Begin’s civil rights.

“This confirmed what we believed all along,” Augusta police Chief Jared Mills said Friday. “Basically you had an officer that followed all our policies and procedures and training who confronted what we all believed, and the attorney general believed, was a deadly-force situation, and she acted appropriately.”

The state attorney general ruled in 2016 that Drouin was defending her life and others when she shot Begin three times, justifying her use of deadly force and clearing her of any criminal wrongdoing.

Attorney Edward Benjamin, who represented Drouin in the trial with fellow Drummond Woodsum attorney Kasia Park, said the case was the first such police shooting case to be decided by a jury in about 30 years. He said it has important implications for police officers working in Maine who might find themselves in a similar situation.

“This is a very important case that law enforcement officers across Maine have been following, because it sends some clear direction to people,” Benjamin said. “It’s not just for Laura Drouin but for all law enforcement. I think people, officers on the street, will feel a jury looked at this case objectively and backed her decision that an objectively reasonable officer would have done just what she did in those circumstances.”

Pattershall said he is disappointed in the outcome of the case, but said he does not expect Begin will appeal the jury’s verdict.

He said the case highlights the interaction between law enforcement and people with mental illness. Pattershall said he is hopeful the case will draw attention to how the state treats people with mental illness and improve the cooperation between mental health outpatient providers and police.

“I would like never to see this happen again,” he said, referring to a shooting taking place when someone with a mental illness interacts with police. “I do not believe Jason Begin had any intent to harm anyone but himself, and I know that he never threatened anyone else in the area. I do understand how the jury could believe that was a possibility, though, given the evidence.”

The 2015 incident took place at the Ballard Center, in the offices of the outpatient clinic run by Riverview’s Assertive Community Treatment team, located in the former MaineGeneral Medical Center building on the city’s east side.

The team members called for an Augusta police officer to be present because they had concerns that Begin, who had been living in a house on Green Street in Augusta for more than a year, could become aggressive when they told him they had decided to return him to the state hospital.

When informed of their decision, investigators wrote, Begin stood, reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife, raising it over his head while pointing it at a team member and saying he was not going back to the hospital. He slashed his arm with the knife and pointed it at a team member who was backing away. As the team members retreated from the room, they summoned Drouin from the adjacent room, who approached Begin.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Nivision, who denied summary judgment to Drouin when she sought to be dismissed from the lawsuit in a ruling in April 2017, wrote that Drouin only shouted “hey” three times before shooting without warning. Begin, who was hit in the left shoulder, right chest and lower left rib cage, collapsed to the floor. Begin spent five weeks in the hospital being treated for his wounds.

Begin’s lawsuit said neither Drouin nor anyone else told him to drop his knife or to stop.

The attorney general’s report contradicted that, however, saying Drouin drew her weapon and shouted for Begin to stop, but he did not.

An internal investigation by Augusta police indicated Drouin followed correct procedure, and she was returned to duty in February 2015. She had been placed on paid leave after the shooting.

Benjamin said Drouin, who is still an officer with Augusta police, has been stoic about the incident. He said that stems from the fact she believed in her actions that day and that she did what was necessary to protect the lives of people in the room.

“I think she has a right to feel vindicated and has been proven to have acted appropriately,” he said.

Pattershall said Begin has a paralyzed left arm as a result of the shooting and has been through a lot in his life, but feels he survived the shooting for a reason. Pattershall said he would not be surprised if Begin again becomes a productive member of society.

Begin, in 2018, won a judge’s approval to move from Riverview to a supervised apartment in the community. Later in 2018, however, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court denied his petition to be released and discharged from the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. He now lives in an apartment in Augusta with his wife, according to Pattershall.

Begin was placed in the custody of the DHHS commissioner in 2004 after he was found not criminally responsible for the theft of an airplane from an airfield in Turner and violating conditions of release when he crash-landed the plane in 2003 in Canada while he was facing charges of sexually assaulting family members.

Investigators said at the time they believed Begin, who did not have a pilot’s license, fled to escape gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact charges in Androscoggin County, though a 2005 Riverview report quoted Begin as calling the plane incident a suicide attempt.

Under an agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the sexual assault charges were dropped and Begin was found not criminally responsible for the plane theft because of mental illness.

State experts testified in 2004 that Begin was diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and a developmental disorder similar to autism.

Drouin, who could not be reached for comment immediately, was 20 when she joined the department on May 14, 2012, after an eight-month internship. She graduated from the University of Maine at Fort Kent with a bachelor’s degree in public safety and an associate degree in criminal justice.

Mills said the Police Department is happy with the outcome of the trial and said if the jury’s decision had gone the other way, it could have affected all police departments in Maine.

filed under: