By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — An Alton police officer was justified in firing one shot at a motor vehicle, the driver of which failed to heed his signals and shouts to slow as he passed the scene of an earlier accident on Feb. 25, concluded Belknap County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen.
Following an investigation of the incident by the New Hampshire State Police, Guldbrandsen issued a memo on Tuesday , finding that in the circumstances the conduct of Officer Michael Beaucham "was legally justified" and consequently criminal charges will not be brought against him.
According to the memo, around 7 p.m. Beauchamp was near the junction of Route 140 and Youngstown Road where an impaired driver, traveling westbound had veered off the pavement to his right, hit a tree, careened back onto the road, spun around and came to rest off the eastbound lane facing in the opposite direction. The roadway, lined with snow banks, was wet and it a "dark, misty and foggy" evening.
About an hour later, Beauchamp was clearing the scene of the accident. A tow truck, carrying the damaged car, was in the eastbound lane with Beauchamp's cruiser behind it and two vehicles stopped behind the cruiser. Beauchamp was directing traffic using the open westbound lane. The blue emergency lights on the cruiser and the yellow emergency lights on the tow truck were on.
When an approaching westbound vehicle, driven by Erik Klerk, 50, of Alton, did not appear to be slowing, Beauchamp stepped into the travel lane and signaled with his flashlight. According to Beauchamp and a half dozen witnesses, Klerk failed to slow, and three witnesses reported that he appeared to accelerate. Beauchamp smartly moved aside as the vehicle "passed within inches of him," and he discharged his firearm, firing one shot in the door on the driver's side.
Beauchamp reported that the vehicle was speeding and accelerating. He said he did not recall drawing or firing his weapon, but said he believed "the vehicle was going to kill him." The officer's description of the incident was confirmed by witnesses. The tow truck operator estimated Klerk was traveling at more than 40 mph. The driver of a U-Haul truck watching Klerk said he was driving "erratically" and did not slow. Two witnesses described Klerk as "flying" through the scene.
Beauchamp returned to his cruiser, turned around and stopped Klerk, who after breath test was found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.26, more than three times the legal limit. He was charged with aggravated driving under the influence. Klerk would later admit he had drunk alcohol before the incident, but claimed he had slowed and stopped when he heard a bang, thinking he had hit something in the road.
Guldbrandsen noted that the law stipulates that "a law enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force only when he reasonably believes such force is necessary." Furthermore, she cites the United States Supreme Court, which held that "the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."
While acknowledging there is no evidence Klerk intended to harm Beauchamp or anyone else, Guldbrandsen found that "a reasonable police officer could reasonable believe that this vehicle ... posed a threat to himself or another person " and "it was not unreasonable to infer that the driver posed an imminent threat of deadly force." At the same time, she said that shooting at the vehicle posed risks, to an innocent passenger or of leaving the car in the control of a dead or wounded driver.
After recounting the incident, Guldbrandsen concluded "taking all this into consideration, although the call is close, the use of deadly force in this case was justified." She added that Beauchamp responded to "a rapidly evolving scene" and "reacted, based upon his training, to protect the scene and the people in it." Moreover, she said "It can't be ignored that the officer placed himself in danger of death or serious bodily injury in good faith to protect others."