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Law enforcement had probable cause to take Maine gunman into custody and remove his firearms before shooting, report says

By Emma Tucker, CNN

(CNN) — Law enforcement officers had probable cause to confiscate the firearms from Robert Card and take him into protective custody before he went on a shooting rampage in northern Maine, but failed to invoke a state law that could have been used to disarm him, according to an independent report into the mass shooting made public Friday.

The interim report, released by an independent commission to investigate the October 25, 2023, mass shooting in Lewiston, determined the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office had sufficient evidence to believe the US Army Reservist posed a likelihood of serious harm and stressed the department could have utilized the state’s so-called “yellow flag” law. The report detailed how those who knew Card alerted authorities on several occasions to his deteriorating mental state and serious concerns he would become violent.

Card went on two shooting rampages at a bar and bowling alley in Lewiston, killing 18 people and wounding 13 others with an assault rifle. After a 48-hour manhunt following the shootings, Card was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head near a river some 10 miles from Lewiston.

Maine is the only state in the country with a yellow flag law, which is a more relaxed version of the popular red flag laws used by nearly half of US states aiming to prevent dangerous individuals from accessing firearms, CNN previously reported. In the wake of the shooting, gun policy experts told CNN the law was specifically designed for people like Card, who showed signs of a mental health crisis and demonstrated himself to be a threat.

Authorities never attempted to utilize what gun policy experts deemed as the best tool at their disposal that may have disarmed him, and instead relied on Card’s family to keep guns from him after they tried without success to talk to the reservist, CNN reported. The interim report on Friday criticized the sheriff’s office for not taking away Card’s firearms and leaving it to his family to do so, calling the decision “an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility.”

By September 17, 2023, the US Army and law enforcement officials knew Card had a serious mental illness for which he had been hospitalized for two weeks; had access to at least 10 firearms; had assaulted his friend days earlier; had threatened to open fire at a military facility in Saco and “threatened to ‘get’ his superiors who were responsible for his hospitalization,” the commission said in its report.

“… There were several opportunities that, if taken, may have changed the course of events,” the report said.

The report also said law enforcement had “more than sufficient information to pursue criminal assault charges” against Card, and had they investigated and filed charges against him, an arrest warrant could have been issued.

“The prosecutor could then have requested bail conditions that prohibited Mr. Card’s ownership or possession of firearms,” the report reads.

Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey announced in November the independent commission would review the shooting, the law enforcement response and the events leading up to the tragedy. Details which emerged shortly after the incident chronicling the alarming reports over the course of months added pressure on state and local officials to explain why more wasn’t done to intervene.

The commission, which continues to investigate the shooting, is composed of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a former US Attorney for the District of Maine and several former judges, including the former Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial court.

“This decision shifted what is and was a law enforcement responsibility onto civilians who have neither the legal authority to begin the Yellow Flag process nor any legal authority to seize weapons,” the report said. “Even after delegating that responsibility to Mr. Card’s family, the SCSO failed to follow up to ensure that the firearms had been removed from Mr. Card’s custody and safely secured.”

CNN has reached out to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office for comment but did not immediately hear back.

Sheriff Joel Merry told CNN in November law enforcement officers weren’t able to make contact with Card during two visits. It meant they couldn’t invoke the state’s yellow flag law, as the law makes clear an officer must first take a person into protective custody, the sheriff said.

“This prevented us from initiating a ‘yellow flag law,’” Sheriff Merry told CNN at the time. “Extremely unfortunate, but we must adhere to the law.”

Army Reservist was ‘textbook case’ for state law, experts said

Every law enforcement agency in Maine completed training on the state’s yellow flag law by the end of 2022, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety. The agency also required agencies to provide voluntary training on the law in 2023 and in 2024, the department previously told CNN.

Under Maine’s yellow flag law, also dubbed “protection from substantial threats,” officers must have “probable cause” to believe someone is mentally ill and likely to cause “serious harm” to themselves or others, the law states.

Those signs can be a substantial risk of self-harm, a major risk of physical harm to others by recent homicidal or violent behavior or based on recent conduct, likely to place others in fear of serious physical harm.

After the secondary assessment by a medical practitioner, a judge can opt to approve an order to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms, the law says.

Authorities have said Maine gun laws do not prohibit a person from buying a gun based strictly on a mental health diagnosis or treatment.

The state does not require background checks before making all gun purchases, nor does it require firearm owners to register their weapons. It also doesn’t require permits to carry concealed firearms in public.

But officers can utilize the yellow flag law to take a person in crisis into protective custody and undergo a medical evaluation. Then, a judge can decide whether to approve an order to temporarily remove the person’s access to firearms, the law states.

The law, passed in 2019, was a compromise between gun-rights and gun-control advocates to the red-flag laws in place in 21 US states and Washington, D.C., also known as an extreme risk protection order, Rocque said.

“This is a textbook case for the yellow flag law,” said Michael Rocque, chairperson of the sociology department at Bates College, which is based in Lewiston. “This is what it was intended for. Somebody who is having a mental health crisis, who has demonstrated themselves to be a threat,” said Rocque, who is a criminologist who has studied gun laws and mass shootings at the college.

Red flag laws vary by state, but they largely allow anyone who knows a person who poses a threat to themselves or others to petition a court to temporarily remove their access to firearms.

What makes Maine’s law different is the additional hurdles in the process to remove a person’s weapons – starting with only law enforcement being able to invoke the yellow flag process, and it can only be triggered by officers physically taking a person into protective custody, according to Rocque.

The procedure also includes an extra step. The firearm restriction cannot be put in place without an agreement between a medical practitioner and police, determining the case warrants bringing a petition before a judge, the law states.

In Friday’s report, the commission said it “recognizes that, to take Mr. Card into protective custody, an officer would have had to make ‘face-to-face’ contact with him. We also recognize that that process might not have been without difficulty and potential risk.” But the commission stressed issuing a protective order was warranted in Card’s case, it said.

“…A plan to intervene and take Mr. Card into protective custody should have been undertaken,” the commission determined.

Card’s mental state was declining 10 months before shooting, report says

Documents shared with CNN in November by the Sheriff’s office showed Card’s family had called the department as far back as May 2023, voicing concerns over his well-being and access to firearms. The report detailed how Card started hearing insulting voices in his head in the spring and they had gotten worse.

The commission’s report said Card’s 17-year-old son and his son’s mother relayed their concerns to the sheriff’s department the Army Reservist’s mental health had been declining since January 2023. Card’s son gave various examples and stated his father was “angry, hearing voices, and experiencing paranoia,” the commission said.

Months later in September, after Card was released from his psychiatric stay, a fellow soldier reported his troubling mental state and specific threats he made to attack a military base.

The US Army asked local police to check on the reservist in September after a soldier reported Card was “messed up in the head,” adding, “I believe he is going to snap and do a mass shooting,” the commission’s report states. It was one of several warnings relatives and those who knew him reported to officials since spring.

The US Army previously told CNN the health and wellness check was requested by the shooter’s unit “out of an abundance of caution after the unit became concerned for his safety.”

A deputy went to Card’s home on September 15, and again September 16, but did not make contact with him, the sheriff’s office said.

The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office sent an alert to other law enforcement agencies saying they were trying to locate Card. The alert included warnings he was known to be armed and dangerous.

On September 17, the sheriff’s office spoke with Card’s brother, asking him about the status of the guns and whether Card needed a psychiatric evaluation.

But the department “made no plans” to follow up with his brother, and the responding police officer said he would help to facilitate a mental health evaluation if needed. At that point, the commission said in its interim report, the responding officer considered the matter “resolved” because no one expressed a desire to press charges.

The commission said it will continue to hold interviews, public hearings and gather materials before the final, more comprehensive report with recommendations is issued later this year.

“More work needs to be done and it will be done – the victims, their families and the people of Maine deserve no less,” the commission wrote.

CNN’s Rob Frehse, Shimon Prokupecz and Mark Morales contributed to this report.

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