A former Canaan officer asks N.H. Supreme Court to block the release of an internal investigation
Justices on the New Hampshire Supreme Court are considering whether the release of an independent report into a police officer’s alleged use of excessive force during a traffic stop in 2017 would violate the officer’s privacy rights, or shed important light for the public on the handling of internal law enforcement investigations.
The Valley News, represented by the ACLU of New Hampshire, sued for the release of the investigation into Officer Samuel Provenza, who worked in the Town of Canaan from 2014 to 2019. Provenza’s arrest of Crystal Eastman following a traffic stop resulted in a physical confrontation, and the subsequent investigation by an independent contractor paid for by the town.
During oral arguments before the court on Wednesday, a lawyer for Provenza said that the report concluded the allegations against Provenza were unfounded, and therefore should be shielded from public view to protect his privacy.
Unsustained findings, attorney John Krupski said, are “issues that have no merit. And therefore, what you are doing is rewarding or allowing and incentivizing people to make complaints which are not valid or true” if you order its release, he told the justices.
The newspaper, however, argued that the public has the right to inspect the report, and make sure it is “comprehensive and accurate,” Henry Klementowicz, an attorney with the ACLU, told the court.
“What we are talking about are actions taken by a governmental officer in his official capacity while on the clock working for the taxpayer,” he said. “We are not asking for medical records or counseling records, a home address or personal phone number. These are actions by the government taken on behalf of the public.”
In 2017, Provenza pulled over Eastman after receiving a report that she was following a school bus as it dropped off children. Eastman’s daughter was on the bus, and she told the officer she had concerns about the driver’s speed.
According to his legal filing, Provenza said Eastman grabbed her license out of his hand, prompting a physical altercation during which Eastman alleges she was pulled from the car by her hair, and that Provenza struck her leg, resulting in a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee that would require surgery.
Canaan police cruisers are equipped with cameras, but Provenza failed to turn the recording system on during the traffic stop.
Eastman was found guilty of disobeying an officer, and not guilty on charges she resisted arrest.
The Town of Canaan hired Municipal Resources Inc. to conduct a review of Provenza’s actions after Eastman filed a complaint. The Valley News filed a Right to Know request to obtain a copy of the report, which the Town originally denied, citing the state’s long-standing exemption to disclosure laws for certain personnel documents.
But in 2020, the N.H. Supreme Court handed down a series of major rulings in unrelated cases that effectively ended the automatic exemption of personnel documents from the Right to Know law, prompting the Valley News to again request the report into Provenza’s actions.
Under the new precedent set by the Supreme Court, judges are to perform a “balancing test” to determine if releasing any records would be in the public’s interest, or if releasing the materials would be too great an infringement on the government employee’s privacy interests.
After a lower court judge performed the balancing test and ruled that releasing the report was in the public’s interest, Provenza appealed.
Along with filing a complaint with the Canaan Police, Eastman also sued Provenza and the town in federal court for damages stemming from the incident. That civil case is scheduled for trial in 2022.
Provenza is currently a New Hampshire State Trooper.