Valley News – Jim Kenyon: Ex-cop-turned-lawmaker believes police “privacy” outweighs public interest

What is it about some New Hampshire police officers — even after they have turned in their guns and badges — that they feel the state’s right to know shouldn’t apply to them?

In May 2020, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued two rulings that opened the door to internal records of alleged police misconduct to become publicly available.

But apparently the message from the state Supreme Court – that accountability and transparency in policing really matter – remains unpopular in some law enforcement circles. At least in our state.

Former Claremont cop-turned Republican politician Jonathan Stone comes to mind immediately.

Three months after the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions, Stone began a legal battle to keep his disciplinary record secret. This fight is still ongoing.

Stone was a Claremont police officer for six years, during which time he was the subject of a dozen – more or less – internal reports of alleged misconduct while on duty.

He resigned in June 2007 after reaching a “negotiated settlement” with the city. Around this time, Stone accepted a position with the Vermont Department of Corrections at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt. on. His employment ended last December, state records show.

Following the Supreme Court rulings in May 2020, freelance reporter Damien Fisher asked Claremont officials for Stone’s disciplinary records under the Right-to-Know Act. That New Hampshire Union Leader later made a similar request.

Stone, a Claremont City Councilor for half a dozen years, then went to court to prevent the information from being released. Stone’s attorney, Peter Decato of Lebanon, argued that under the 2007 agreement, the city had a “legal obligation” not to release the information to protect Stone’s “privacy interests.”

Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the union leader entered the fray. “Any privacy interest (of Stone) is clearly outweighed by the public interest.” union leader Attorney Gregory Sullivan responded.

Last month, Sullivan County Superior Court Judge Martin Honigberg denied Stone’s request for an injunction to prevent the city from “disclosing various documents” relating to his six years as a Claremont police officer.

Stone did not fulfill the “heavy burden of shifting the balance toward secrecy,” wrote Honigberg.

Stone could appeal the judge’s decision to the state Supreme Court. I was going to ask Stone about his plans but didn’t hear from him last week.

Even if Stone chooses not to proceed with the case, it will likely be a while before his disciplinary files are released. The lawyers in the case – I counted four at one hearing – have yet to agree on what information will be redacted.

Sullivan, the union leader Lawyer stressed that reporters do not seek medical or other personal information such as addresses and phone numbers. The information requested relates to how a public official “discharged their duties,” Sullivan said.

Stone isn’t the first law enforcement officer — and likely won’t be the last — to argue that records of his police work should remain off-limits to the public.

In his decision, Honigberg cited the case of former Canadian police officer Sam Provenza, who fought a losing battle all the way to the state Supreme Court to prevent a consultant’s 2018 investigative report on him from becoming public information.

Honigberg agreed with Peter Bornstein, the Grafton County Superior Court judge who presided over Provenza’s case, that the public has a “substantial interest” in knowing “what their government is up to.”

As in Provenza’s case, the documents do not reveal “intimate details of (Stone’s) life,” wrote Honigberg. However, the documents contain “information regarding his conduct as a government employee in the performance of his official duties and in dealings with (members of) the public,” the judge added.

Provenza, who is now a New Hampshire state police officer, sued Canaan after I requested the taxpayer-funded report that came from a 2017 traffic stop.

The report, prepared by a former state trooper, cleared Provenza of any wrongdoing. However, the city and its insurance carrier quickly reached a $160,000 out-of-court settlement with the Canaanite, who accused Provenza of seriously injuring her knee during the encounter that saw her leave the scene in an ambulance.

The incident was not caught on the dashboard video camera on Provenza’s cruiser. Provenza said he “just forgot to press the button to activate it when he left the police station” — a detail that wasn’t released until the report was released in May.

In the Provenza and Stone cases, state courts “reaffirmed unequivocally that a person who becomes a law enforcement officer should expect their conduct to be subject to closer scrutiny,” Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director, told me via email . “It’s the nature of the job.”

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of his case, Stone has already won a partial victory.

Stone, a candidate for the New Hampshire House, was certainly pleased to see the proceedings drag on beyond the Nov. 8 election to avoid responding to constituents about the details of the internal investigation.

On election day, Stone narrowly secured one of two seats in the House of Representatives in Sullivan County’s District 8, which consists of Claremont and eight smaller cities. (A Friday recount increased his lead from three to 14 votes.)

In his judgment against Stone last month, Honigberg pointed out that “the New Hampshire legislature and its courts are generally agreed that (the state’s right to know) carries strong weight in favor of disclosure of public records.”

Something to keep in mind for Stone as he heads to the Statehouse in January.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at [email protected]