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Lawyers for YDC victims want sealed search warrant released

Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, NH. Dan Tuohy photo.
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, NH. Dan Tuohy photo.

Lawyers for more than 1,100 victims of alleged sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at New Hampshire youth detention facilities already have access to tens of thousands of pages of state records as part of their civil lawsuits against the state.

But there’s one additional court document they’re now arguing must be made public: a search warrant and supporting affidavit from the state’s parallel criminal investigation into its own conduct.

“These records, including a lengthy affidavit describing the horrific conditions at the YDC for decades, have been sealed and sitting in a box at the court for more than four years,” said David Vicinanzo, who along with attorney Russ Rilee, are representing the majority of the alleged victims.

The search warrant – filed under seal by a New Hampshire state trooper in 2020 – highlights the state’s conflicting roles in addressing the decades of alleged abuse at the Sununu Youth Services Center (formerly Youth Development Center or YDC) and other state-contracted facilities for minors. Evidence gathered by the state in support of criminal prosecutions is likely harmful to the state’s defense in civil proceedings.

In a motion filed last Tuesday, Vicinanzo and Rilee asked a circuit court judge to unseal the search warrant and supporting affidavit – approximately 40 pages of materials – which they claim “exposes in great detail the corruption of the State as perpetrated by more than one State government agency and the criminality of a large number of State employees.”

In a twist, Vicinanzo said he only learned the search warrant exists because it was handed over to him by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office as part of the pretrial sharing of information known as the discovery process. However, Vicinanzo is unable to present the search warrant and affidavit as evidence in an upcoming civil trial against the state because it remains under a protective order.

A spokesperson for the New Hampshire Attorney General said the state will object to releasing the sealed records, and that it plans to file its formal response later this week. The government has already responded to a related request to unseal an arrest affidavit filed by Vicinanzo and Rilee, arguing in court paperwork that releasing these sworn statements “may compromise the integrity of the ongoing investigation and frustrate the YDC Task Force’s continued efforts to locate and assess potential victims of abuse.”

As part of the state justice department’s investigation into the abuse, the attorneys said a state trooper filed the search warrant on Jan. 10, 2020, and that after approval from a judge, prosecutors carried out a search of government buildings the same day. It is unclear which buildings law enforcement searched, or what materials they may have obtained.

Since filing the search warrant, state prosecutors have arrested at least 11 former employees of YDC and charged them with a range of offenses spanning decades.

While search warrants are often initially sealed to allow law enforcement to conduct raids without alerting their targets, the lawyers for the victims argue keeping those documents sealed from the public for more than four years violates precedent and normal court operations. They also say there is no compelling argument to keep the records shielded since the former employees were indicted in July 2021, and prosecutors have made no other arrests since.

When an NHPR reporter on Monday requested to see the case file at Concord Circuit Court, court staff said the entire matter is under seal, and that the state has 10 days to file a response to the request to unseal the document.

In their motion filed earlier this month regarding the release of the arrest affidavit, prosecutors for the state said that though the public has a “heightened interest in these high-profile matters,” releasing the records at this time could “interfere with the right of the several defendants to a fair adjudication of their cases.”

“Although the State acknowledges that the affidavits cannot and should not remain sealed in their entirety indefinitely,” prosecutors wrote, “the foregoing compelling interests nevertheless require them to remain sealed at this time.”

In his filing last week, Vicinanzo asked the court to move swiftly in releasing the search warrant, citing the first in a series of civil trials against the state over allegations of decades of abuse at YDC that is set to begin in April. David Meehan, who alleges he was subjected to repeated rapes while detained as a minor at YDC, is seeking to include the search warrant and affidavit as part of his evidence.

Vicinanzo noted that justice department attorneys are simultaneously defending the state against civil lawsuits including Meehan’s, which carry the risk of jury settlements in the millions or tens of millions of dollars, while also seeking to prosecute the former employees who they allege perpetuated the abuse.

“The State’s cover-up of its own corruption is unacceptable, the product of taking different positions in different courts based on situational interests,” the attorneys wrote in their motion.

While the civil cases are set to kick off this spring, the state is also seeking to reach out-of-court settlements with a larger number of victims. The state previously allocated $100 million to compensate victims who forgo lawsuits; 102 claims have been settled to date, with an average payout of $492,000.

Under a proposal now before lawmakers, the payout cap would grow to $2.5 million per victim, up from the current cap of $1.5 million. The bill would also compensate victims for each day they were kept in solitary confinement, and raise the payout caps for physical and emotional abuse from $150,000 to $250,000.

Vicinanzo and Rilee said they are in support of the changes to the settlement fund, which they helped negotiate, and anticipate the higher payouts could result in the “vast majority” of litigants choosing to settle, rather than pursue legal cases.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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