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Intent of N.H. exploitation law at issue in ex-deputy’s sex assault case

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears in Belknap County Superior Court in Laconia on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Ernest Justin Blanchette

  • Former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy Ernest Justin Blanchette appears at his trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester on Thursday, April 28, 2016. Blanchette was convicted of raping a female inmate en route to prison last summer. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A high-profile case against a former Belknap County sheriff’s deputy has attorneys citing ambiguities in a state law designed to protect inmates from sexual exploitation and abuse.

The varied legal interpretations took front and center Wednesday afternoon in Belknap County Superior Court, where Ernest Justin Blanchette, 37, of Franklin is seeking the dismissal of all pending sexual assault charges against him.

This past spring, the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned Blanchette’s conviction for raping a female inmate, whom he was transporting, in Hillsborough County. The court ruled that prosecutors presented insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was “employed” by the Belknap County jail or the state prison at the time, as required by state law.

Prosecutors said Blanchette had used his authority as a deputy sheriff to coerce his victim into having sex. However, Blanchette argued that the state failed to prove its case, as he was not working directly under either the Belknap County jail or the state prison at the time of the alleged crime; Blanchette was employed by the county sheriff’s office – and the law draws a clear distinction, his attorney Brad Davis said.

“As a matter of law, a county sheriff is not employed by a correctional institution,” he told Belknap County Judge James O’Neill, adding that one is not merely employed by a jail because he or she transports inmates.

Blanchette stands accused of sexually assaulting an inmate he was transporting from the Belknap County jail to dentist appointments in Tilton in 2014 and 2015. He is also charged with coercing female inmates to engage in sexual acts with their respective male partners while he drove the transport vehicle.

Davis maintains part of state law’s definition of a rape through coercion involves the victim being incarcerated in a correctional facility “where the actor is employed.” While the law specifically cites correctional officers and probation parole officers, it does not name sheriffs and other law enforcement officials, he noted previously.

In written objections filed with the court, Assistant Belknap County Attorney Adam Woods maintains the Legislature intended to criminalize all sexual contact between inmates and those in positions of “supervisory or disciplinary authority over them,” both inside and outside the walls of a correctional institution.

Woods said Blanchette may not have received a paycheck from the county jail, but that doesn’t absolve him of criminal liability. He also noted that corrections officers and sheriff’s deputies are employees of the county, which also oversees the jail.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in May, the legislative intent of the law, and, more specifically the phrase “where the actor is employed” remains at issue. The higher court did not rule on the merits of attorneys’ arguments in Hillsborough County, but noted both had legal footing.

“Although we have resolved the present appeal without addressing the merits of the parties’ interpretations of the statutory language, the disagreement persists: accordingly, we invite the legislature to amend the language in (the law) to clarify its intent with regard to the meaning of the phrase at issue,” the justices wrote.

After the higher court issued its order, Republican Senate leaders told the Monitor that tightening the law will be a top priority in 2018, the second year of the legislative session.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)