My Turn: State must disclose list of officers with credibility problems

  • House Speaker Michael Busch's gavel is shown prior to the start of Governor Martin O'Malley's annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Rob Carr) Rob Carr

For the Monitor
Published: 4/21/2019 12:10:18 AM

In New Hampshire, police officers are given special protections: Their personnel files are deemed automatically confidential by the government. At the same time, to ensure that criminal defendants can present a strong defense, both the New Hampshire and U.S. constitutions require that defendants have access to evidence that might help their case, including exculpatory evidence in a police officer’s personnel file.

The state’s “Laurie List,” named after a 1995 New Hampshire Supreme Court case, was created in an attempt to reconcile these two conflicting principles. Following this decision, the New Hampshire Department of Justice keeps this list containing the names of officers who have issues in their personnel files relating to their truthfulness or credibility. But there’s a glaring problem with the Laurie List: It’s secret.

Currently, there are over 260 officers on the list, but their identities remain unknown outside of the halls of the New Hampshire Department of Justice, each county prosecutor’s office and local police departments. These officers have engaged in sustained misconduct that concerns credibility and truthfulness and goes to the core of an officer’s ability to perform his or her duties. We are talking about, for example, a deliberate lie during a court case, the falsification of records or evidence, any criminal conduct and an egregious dereliction of duty. It should be obvious, but the police are not entitled to secrecy with respect to their own misconduct.

This secrecy is deeply harmful to government accountability. It means that the public is left unaware of which officers in their towns have had issues concerning their truthfulness or credibility. It also means that defense lawyers have no way to verify whether state prosecutors are properly disclosing to defendants in criminal cases when a testifying officer has a credibility issue.

The system is already imperfect, and this secrecy makes it worse. On multiple occasions, the state has failed to inform a criminal defendant that an officer involved in their case was on the list. Furthermore, a single corrupt officer may affect dozens of cases. The firing of a police detective in Manchester forced prosecutors to drop 35 felony drug cases. In a separate incident, after two officers were fired for allegedly lying about a case, 20 other cases were dropped.

The ACLU of New Hampshire and six newspapers believe this arrangement is an ongoing recipe for disaster, which is why we challenged the secrecy of this list in state court. As our lawsuit explains, under New Hampshire law, this list is a public record and should be disclosed to the public. Any privacy interest held by the officers on the list, who have engaged in misconduct that bears on their credibility or truthfulness, must yield to the common good.

As the lawsuit notes, “Keeping information secret, especially when it comes to police behavior and how prosecutors do their jobs, only creates distrust and suspicion that minimizes the hard work and dedication shown by the overwhelming majority of law enforcement professionals.”

Moreover, there is a bill currently pending in the Senate, House Bill 155, which would rightly make this list public. This bill most recently passed the House of Representatives on a voice vote after being unanimously approved in the House Judiciary Committee. However, the police continue to oppose the bill and wish to keep the list hidden from public view. However, the public pays these officers’ salaries and has a right to know this information that may implicate sustained misconduct.

The stakes of keeping the Laurie List secret are simply too great. The state must produce the list and make it public for all to see.

(Gilles Bissonnette is the legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.)

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