The New Hampshire Senate passed a bill Thursday to gradually release one of New Hampshire’s most secretive documents: the list of police officers whose supervisors say they have credibility issues.
In a rare unanimous vote, the body voted, 24-0, to approve a bill that would make the “Laurie List” public. The list, which was created in 2004 and now includes the names of 270 officers, has remained mostly redacted from public view for decades.
“This has been a very hotly debated issue for a number of years, and I would like to thank everyone who came together to resolve this issue,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Becky Whitley, a Concord Democrat, said: “This legislation is consistent with the recommendations of the LEACT Commission (Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency) and supports the critical conversations around transparency and public information that are key components to a functional democracy.
Thursday’s legislation would allow the Attorney General’s Office to continue to maintain a list of officers with complaints and troubling conduct records, which the office has been doing since 2004. But the proposed law would make such a list subject to the state’s right-to-know law, allowing the public to see the names of the officers for the first time.
The release would not happen immediately. According to the bill, the Attorney General’s Office would contact all officers who are on the list, who would then have six months to decide whether to appeal their placement on the list through the Superior Court.
As long as an officer’s appeal is pending, his or her name will not be released. Instead, under the outlined process, the names would gradually be made public depending on the status of each officer’s appeal.
“It will provide transparency, which in this type of instance is very important, but it also establishes a police officer’s right of due process, which, again, is very important as well,” said Carson.
The release of the list could be transformational for the public and the police.
Presently, the Attorney General’s Office releases a version of the list to the public that lays out the nature of the alleged offense and the officer’s police department, but redacts the officer’s name and the date of the offense.
Incidents on the list range from falsifying evidence, to deception, to excessive force, to issuance of unlawful orders.
First created as a series of 10 lists prepared by each of the 10 county attorneys, the “Laurie Lists” are known officially as “exculpatory evidence schedules.” They were designed by the Attorney General’s Office as a way to keep track of officers whose past incidents could make them a liability if they were to testify on the stand.
A change to the procedure in 2018 by then-Attorney General Gordon MacDonald clarified that only officers whose superiors identified “founded” incidents could be added to the list. The move was made to address concerns over due process.
Thursday’s breakthrough legislation was introduced as a last-minute amendment to House Bill 471, a bill opening up police disciplinary hearings to the public.
And it came as a result of intensive negotiations among a number of parties, including police unions, news outlets, Gov. Chris Sununu’s office, the Attorney General’s Office, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.
“The amended version of HB 471 supported by the Senate today represents the remarkable collaborative efforts of the New Hampshire Department of Justice, media representatives, the ACLU, and New Hampshire law enforcement to promote transparency and accountability,” Whitley said in a statement. “We commend them for their work in resolving a long-standing dispute.”
Part of the urgency came from the courts. The New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism had joined with the ACLU and a range of New Hampshire news outlets in suing the state to release the list under the right-to-know law.
That lawsuit is still pending and awaiting action; the Attorney General’s Office and news outlets have requested a delay to allow the legislation to be passed. The New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism, the lead plaintiff, has disagreed and wants to proceed, InDepth NH reported.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit have declared the legislative solution satisfactory.
“This is a strong proposal that not only addresses some of the concerns that we’ve heard from law enforcement, but also addresses, frankly, the concerns from some transparency advocates like myself: that this list was so confidential for so many years,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said when the agreement was first unveiled.
The bill has a strong chance of passage. It heads back to the House next, which has expressed bipartisan support for release of the Laurie List in the past.
Sununu has also endorsed the effort, which was included last year in a package of reforms recommended by the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency.
In its original form passed by the House April 7, House Bill 471 required that police disciplinary hearings be open to the public under the right-to-know law, with exceptions in cases where confidential information might be revealed.
That language, itself a major shift in police transparency laws, was also passed as part of the amended bill on Thursday.
The bill was one of a number of police reform bills taken up by the Senate Thursday.
Right not to be searched
The Senate also passed a bill Thursday that would require police officers to inform citizens of their right to decline to be searched.
House Bill 485 would require an officer to tell a driver that they could refuse a search of their vehicle without facing any penalty. That duty to inform would also extend to a person’s house, personal belongings, or other property.
Under the bill, if the person consented to the search, the officer would have to record their consent either in writing or through an audio recording.
“This bill does not provide a new right, it merely plugs an information gap and informs individuals of a pre-existing right,” Whitley said.
Expanded statute of limitations for assaults against minors
In another unanimous vote, the Senate passed a bill to expand the statute of limitations for children who are the victim of assault.
State law imposes a six-year statute of limitations for all prosecutions of first- and second-degree assaults – no matter the age of the victim. The current legal framework means that a child assaulted at age 10 has until they turn 16 to decide whether to report the crime and participate in a criminal investigation.
Under House Bill 239, the victim would have up until three years after their 18th birthday to report the assault and press charges – no matter what age they were when it happened.
Before passing the bill, the Senate made a major change. The House version specified a six-year statute of limitations after the victim’s 18th birthday. The Senate shortened that timespan to three years, making 21 the new cap for childhood victims.
Bill preventing non-disparagement clauses for public employees fails
The Senate killed an effort to prohibit public bodies from using non-disparagement clauses against employees – a move that some senators said was a matter of local control.
In a 24-0 vote, the Senate axed House Bill 83, which would have canceled any non-disparagement clauses brought about via a legal settlement with a government employee.
Carson argued that the bill would have interfered with the rights of police departments, schools, and towns to enter into contracts as they saw fit. And she said that the non-disparagement agreements were voluntarily entered into by the employees and often accompanied settlement payments for the employees.
“The state should not be dictating to local governments what they can and cannot include in their contracts,” Carson said.
Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, disagreed, arguing eliminating the clauses was a matter of transparency.
“Settlement agreements stand in the way of the public’s right to know what their government entities have done on various personnel and other legal settlement issues,” he said.
In the end, the full Senate voted the measure down with the intent of bringing the matter back for a second attempt later in the year.