Judge: Town of Canaan must release report on officer related to arrest that left woman injured

Valley News
Published: 12/3/2020 1:35:27 PM

The town of Canaan must release the results of an internal investigation of a former police officer’s roadside encounter with a woman who was injured during her arrest, a Grafton Superior Court judge ordered on Wednesday.

Former Canaan Police Officer Samuel Provenza, who left the force in February 2019 to join the New Hampshire State Police, had asked the court to prevent release of the report, arguing that because the allegation of excessive force against him was “not sustained,” public interest is insignificant.

Provenza also contends the report should be regarded as a personnel matter, which in some situations can be treated differently under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law.

However, citing the importance of transparency and accountability, Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein on Wednesday denied Provenza’s request and ordered public release of the report.

In the 21-page ruling, Bornstein noted that the “public has a right to know that the police take their complaints seriously and that the investigation was ‘comprehensive and accurate,’ ” and that officers themselves are provided a fair investigation with due process.

Moreover, Bornstein wrote, “as is evidenced by the national conversation concerning policing in the United States, transparency at all levels of police conduct investigations is fundamentally important to ensure the public’s confidence and trust in local police departments.”

For nearly two years, the Valley News has sought release of the internal report — which was completed by an outside firm at the cost of $6,000 — arguing that there is a significant public interest in knowing how the Canaan police department supervises its department and responds to allegations of misconduct.

The case stems from the November 2017 arrest of Crystal Eastman, who was following her daughter’s school bus on its route after being told that the driver was prone to speeding.

The bus company reported to police that the bus was being followed and Provenza responded and pulled over Eastman.

Although Canaan police cruisers were equipped with cameras, Provenza failed to activate his that day, according to Bornstein’s order.

Eastman said Provenza pulled her from her SUV and forced her to the ground. She was taken from the scene by ambulance and has since undergone two knee surgeries for the injuries she suffered.

Prosecutors acknowledged there was a “physical struggle,” but said Eastman was at fault.

Provenza also asserted that she had “snatched” her driver’s license out of his hands before he had been able to run her name.

Eastman, who now goes by her married name of Crystal Wright, was convicted of disobeying an officer, but acquitted of a resisting arrest charge.

In September, she filed a federal lawsuit against Provenza and the town of Canaan, alleging he used excessive force during her arrest.

In the aftermath of the incident, Canaan hired Meredith, N.H.-based Municipal Resources Inc. to conduct an internal affairs investigation, which was done by a retired New Hampshire state trooper.

Valley News news columnist Jim Kenyon first sought MRI’s report in February 2019, and after Provenza went to court seeking an injunction against its release, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire took on the newspaper’s case at no cost.

In a statement on Wednesday, ACLU-NH Staff Attorney Henry Klementowicz welcomed Bornstein’s ruling.

“This is a clear victory in policing transparency — and now the court has said this investigative report, which looked into allegations of excessive force by a police officer, should be made public,” he said. “We are pleased with the court’s order, which agreed that transparency as it comes to police conduct is critical to ensuring the public’s confidence and trust.”

An email and phone message for John Krupski, the Concord-based attorney representing Provenza, was not returned on Wednesday.

Bornstein’s order included a redacted summary of the MRI report’s conclusion.

Should Provenza appeal to the state Supreme Court, it’s likely that the MRI report would not be released pending resolution of the case.

News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

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