Rape case loophole closure passes N.H. House

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

  • 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 is accused of raping a female inmate en route to prison last summer. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Friday, February 09, 2018

A bill looking to close a loophole in New Hampshire’s sexual assault statute passed the full House with a simple voice vote Thursday morning.

House Bill 1564 is now on to the Senate for further consideration. The bill is expected to move forward without significant opposition after quickly gaining bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, put forward the bill after the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned a former Belknap County deputy sheriff’s rape conviction in May 2017, citing ambiguities in existing law.

The justices said in their ruling that both the state and Ernest “Justin” Blanchette’s defense had presented plausible arguments about the meaning of the law and the inclusion of the phrase “where the actor is employed.”

As the law stands now, a law enforcement officer transporting an inmate to and from a correctional facility can have sex with that inmate and escape prosecution, Cushing said previously. While that was never the legislative intent, litigation of the case against Blanchette exposed weaknesses in the statute that were not foreseen at the time of its passage, he said.

Blanchette’s attorneys argued that prosecutors failed to prove he was working under the direction of either the Belknap County Jail or the New Hampshire State Prison for Women when he had sex with an inmate he transported to and from the prison.

Cushing’s proposed bill includes new language stressing that the law is applicable to anyone in a supervisory role, regardless of whether they’re employed by the state’s Department of Corrections, a county jail or other law enforcement agency.

The passage of HB 1564 by a voice vote sends “a clear message that custodial rape under any circumstances is a crime,” Cushing said after the vote. “Rape is never a part of any prisoner’s sentence.”

Blanchette had faced additional sexual assault charges in Belknap County; however, a judge dismissed the case after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Judge James O’Neill III found that a person’s employment at a correctional facility where the victim is incarcerated is a necessary element of each charge and that county prosecutors failed to account for it.