Hillsborough County Attorney won’t release names of police with credibility issues
By JAKE BERRY
The Nashua Telegraph
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Hillsborough County’s chief law enforcement officer is declining to release the number of local police officers who could have credibility issues should they be called to testify in court.
Patricia LaFrance, who took office last month as Hillsborough County attorney, will not release the number of officers included on the county’s so-called “Laurie list” of officers with potential credibility issues until she has had a chance to review the records, LaFrance said this week.
State law, implemented last year in support of a longstanding state policy, requires authorities to track officers cited for a wide range of possible infractions, ranging from planting evidence to lying in court.
The records are kept confidential as part of the officers’ personnel files, but, if the officers are called to testify in court, authorities must submit the records to a judge, who then decides if they are relevant to the case and must be submitted to the defense.
Officials from the attorney general’s office did not return calls seeking comment for this story, but according to prior media reports, they have previously instructed county officials to release the number of officers on the “Laurie list.”
“Honestly, it hardly comes up,” LaFrance, the Hillsborough attorney, said of the credibility issues detailed on the lists. ”Most of the officers no longer work for the department. … That’s what I really want to clear up,” she said. “I don’t want to release any kind of list or numbers until any kind of review is done, then I can with confidence say ‘Here’s the information that I have.’”
The “Laurie list” draws its name from a 1993 murder case, State v. Laurie, which was overturned when the state Supreme Court determined state prosecutors failed to disclose evidence about a police officer who testified at the trial.
Citing the case, former Attorney General Peter Heed issued a memorandum in 2004 instructing the state’s county attorneys to track those officers with potential credibility issues.
According to prior media reports, more than 60 officers from across the state were included on the various lists last year.
The Union Leader newspaper reported in October that 39 officers have potential Laurie issues in Hillsborough County, including 18 current and former Manchester officers, according to the article.
Elsewhere in the state, 12 cases have been identified in Strafford County, said County Attorney Tom Velardi, along with 20 in Rockingham County, according to County Attorney James Reams.
In Strafford, four of the cases have gone to a judge for review, with two going to the defense. And of the 20 Rockingham cases, eight have been called in for review, Reams said, and, of that number, six have been submitted for consideration and two were dismissed. The rest of the officers have either left law enforcement or were not called to testify, he said last week.
“People react to the ‘Laurie list’ as if it’s the legal equivalent of the death penalty,” Reams said. “It’s essentially a precautionary list until the judge has had a chance to review the personnel file.”
Some of the issues raised have involved officers allegedly planting evidence or lying in court, among other severe infractions, attorneys said. But more often, the accusations surround paperwork questions and other lesser charges, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.
“It’s not necessarily planting evidence or committing perjury or anything like that,” said Charles Keefe, a Nashua defense attorney and former state prosecutor who has dealt with ‘Laurie’ issues on both ends. “It usually has more to do with whether someone signed into court some day or not. Usually, they don’t go to the substance of a case. It’s more about following the internal procedures at a police department. There are a lot of them.”
Still, others fear that if there are more severe cases, attorneys may not know about them.
Last year, state lawmakers enacted the new law requiring authorities to report the “Laurie” records. Yet, the “Laurie” system remains a largely self-regulated process, in which police authorities track their own officers with little oversight, attorneys said.
“You always fear there are some people looking out for their own,” said Brandon Giuda, a Chester attorney and former state representative who first introduced the new law.
“How would we ever know (if police didn’t report the information)?” Mark Sisti, a Chichester defense attorney, added. “That’s the problem. Really, it’s a self-enforcement tool.”
Just last month, a Windham man, Cody Eller, appeared in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua, asking a judge to throw out his assault and reckless conduct convictions after prosecutors acknowledged they did not report a potential credibility issue surrounding one of the investigating officers.
“This was not a peripheral witness. This was the main witness in the case, the only real witness who could testify as to what Cody said or did at the scene,” Eller’s attorney, Jeffrey Kaye, of Methuen, Mass., said this week.
“Basically, (Cody) was denied his constitutional rights under the New Hampshire Constitution,” Kaye said. “In my opinion, he didn’t get a fair trial.”
LaFrance, the Hillsborough County attorney, did not return calls for comment about the Eller case, and Judge Jacalyn Colburn issued a gag order prohibiting the attorneys from releasing further information, Kaye said.
But in court, prosecutors said they became aware of the officer’s “Laurie” issue after the trial concluded, according to video of the Jan. 25 hearing.
Looking forward, defense attorneys are hopeful that the new state law, which went into effect in July, will lead to better disclosure of any potential Laurie issues.
“It’s still shaking out,” said Roger Chadwick, a Nashua defense attorney. “Hopefully, it will have a positive impact.”
But others fear the law will have little effect on law enforcement officers who are out to protect their own.
“It disgusts me. The attorney general and the lobbyists for the police in the state are out for themselves,” Giuda, the former state representative, said, speaking of local police officers and state officials who opposed the bill and have since declined to release the “Laurie list” information.
“If a police officer has a credibility issue, they need to find another line of work. They shouldn’t be a police officer,” he said. “Who are we protecting?”