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State Supreme Court to hear inmate transfer appeal

The state Supreme Court is weighing whether a prisoner’s rights were violated when he was barred last year from physically attending a small-claims hearing against a former girlfriend.

The inmate, Lucien Vincent, 40, has appealed a judge’s order last April denying his request to be transported to Concord’s district court for the hearing, in which he alleged the woman, Davina MacLean, had unlawfully transferred money from the couple’s joint bank account. MacLean, who had a restraining order against Vincent at the time, objected to his petition, reasoning to the court that she feared for her safety.

Vincent, who was representing himself, was allowed to participate via teleconference from the state prison. The judge in the case, Gerard Boyle, ultimately ruled in favor of MacLean, citing a lack of evidence against her.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, which has submitted a brief on Vincent’s behalf, argues that he wasn’t able to “meaningfully participate” in the hearing, in part because he couldn’t actively submit exhibits or respond to testimony, and because there weren’t enough compelling safety or cost concerns to prevent the county from transporting him.

“If the outcome of a trial is, on one level, a judgment rendered on which of two competing performances is more compelling, then the impact of the physical absence of one of the rival performers is clear,” the group’s brief states.

“The question is when an inmate has a right to be physically present at a trial,” said NHCLU Director Devon Chaffee. “The integrity of that process is reliant on two parties being able to make compelling cases. If one party is physically present and one is not, that can have a significant impact on the outcome.”

In its brief, the group also claims Vincent should have received a written explanation with the denial, outlining the cost and safety concerns related to his transfer and how those, in the court’s view, outweighed his right to due process.

The state, which has also filed a brief, insists Vincent received an adequate chance to make his claim. It notes that transcripts from the hearing show Vincent gave testimony, responded to questions from the judge and made an objection at one point.

“Because the record demonstrates that (Vincent) meaningfully participated in his small claims hearing via telephone conference and because such participation was proper in light of safety, security, and economic concerns, the trial court’s ruling did not violate (his) due process rights,” Assistant County Attorney Frank Fredericks wrote in the brief.

Fredericks also argued that the trial’s scale was not large enough to necessitate Vincent physically being there, as it involved no jury and its result had nothing to do with his sentence or treatment in prison.

And according to records, Fredericks noted, Vincent was allowed and did submit physical evidence prior to the hearing.

Fredericks also indicated that prison transports are “burdening” the prison system, and argued that, “when balanced against the lack of evidence that the trial court’s denial of (Vincent’s) motion to transport prevented him from meaningful electronic participation,” his rights were not violated.

Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard said transports can be costly and are a constant security risk. Teleconferencing, which has been around since the 1990s and is now used weekly, has helped alleviate those logistical concerns.

But in its brief, the NHCLU questions the actual expense of transporting Vincent, given that the prison is “only a few miles” from the Concord court.

Chaffee said she has not heard of similar issues surfacing recently, involving inmates being denied transfer.

The Supreme Court will take up the case in October.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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