Cop’s early jail release puts focus on obscure law
The case of a former police officer who served a fraction of a one-year jail sentence for a hit-and-run accident that injured two teens has placed a spotlight on an obscure law.
Veteran Manchester officer Steve Coco was convicted of two felony counts of misconduct and sentenced in March to a year in jail.
David Dionne, superintendent of the Hillsborough County House of Corrections, released Coco after 72 days under a law that gives county jail superintendents the authority to free convicts to work or rehabilitation programs after they serve 14 days.
Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson on Thursday ordered Coco back to jail, saying his release was inappropriate and noting Coco had been drinking the night of the crash. Coco, a 17-year police veteran, returned to jail Friday.
Coco was off-duty but driving his unmarked cruiser March 22, 2013, when he struck the teens from behind, injuring Dean Drukker, 18, and Noah Hickman, 17. Coco drove off and initially denied to police officers who questioned him that he’d been out that night, despite damage to his vehicle.
Drukker suffered a concussion, bleeding on the brain and a separated shoulder. Hickman broke his right elbow and suffered back injuries.
Coco’s lawyer, Mark Howard, said Friday he will appeal Abramson’s ruling to the state Supreme Court and seek Coco’s release pending the outcome of that appeal.
“I know the superintendents across the state have a very strong interest in what’s happening here,” Howard said.
“It’s a difficult issue because they commit so much by way of resources to qualifying inmates for programs such as this,” Howard said. “They need to know if their authority to do it is subject to summary reversal by judges. How much should they commit in resources if they have no control over it?”
The jail superintendents lobbied for the law change that took effect last September. The new law eliminated the need for them to petition the court before releasing a convict early; they convinced lawmakers that it was too time-consuming and undermined work and rehabilitation plans.
The new law gives a prosecutor the opportunity to object after the convict’s release, which is what prosecutor Marc Hathaway did in Coco’s case.
“If the statute is interpreted the way the superintendents wish, and the suggestion is that every sentence is essentially a sentence of 14 days and we can do whatever we want, that seriously limits the utility of the house of Corrections,” Hathaway said.
Dionne on Thursday declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
Testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April 2013, Dionne objected to the provision of the proposed law that requires prosecutors to be notified of any early releases and be given the opportunity to petition the court for a hearing.
“For the last three years, that’s what we’ve been trying to get away from,” Dionne told lawmakers. “The court system is bogged down. It takes two to three months to get back before a judge.”
No one spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing, and lawmakers had few questions for the three superintendents who testified in favor of it.
Howard said he’s aware of other cases in which convicts were released after 14 days and there was no hue and cry.
“Because it’s Steve Coco, it’s this big fury,” Howard said.