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Sealed police affidavit at issue at court appearance for couple charged with conspiracy to sell crack

CIRCUIT COURT — The scheduled probable cause hearings for two people arrested last week on Grove Street and charged with distributing and conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine was postponed yesterday, until Tuesday morning.

Bountham Sonthikoummane, 52, and Onella Nguan, 37, were arrested last week by city police and are accused of operating a "big drug enterprise", said Laconia Prosecutor Jim Sawyer at their arraignment in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division last week.

Both are being held on high cash bail and both were transported to the court for their hearings, however Nguan's translator was only able to stay until noon and the proceedings didn't begin until 11:40 a.m.

Additionally, Nguan's attorney, Public Defender Allison Schwartz, said she hadn't been given copies of the search warrant affidavits which she said she would need for the probable cause hearing.

Sonthikoummane's attorney Matt Lahey echoed Schwartz's opinion.

Sawyer, who successful got the affidavits sealed last week, argued the seal should continue because it is an ongoing investigation and he feared that if some of the information in the search warrants was made available to either Nguan, Sonthikoummane or the general public, the investigation could be compromised and the confidential informant's life or well-being could be imperiled.

"We need that (affidavit) to go forward with our hearing," Schwartz argued, telling the judge the information in the affidavit wasn't going anywhere. "We're entitled to that."

Sawyer said the information in the warrant is still "very new" meaning that the search warrant was just issued on October 1 and the rest of the investigation is still in its early stages.

Judge Jim Carroll unsealed the search warrant applications and read them himself.

He suggested a redacted copy that will protect the state's ongoing investigation but gives the defense attorneys enough information for a probable cause hearing.

Schwartz argued that the state's concern for the confidential informant is "misplaced" and it's not "appropriate for the state to decide what we hear."

Carroll said the sequence of events may put the safety of the confidential informant at risk but said the rest of the information in the warrant presents minimal problems.

"It's not how (police) got there but what they saw when they got there," Carroll said, meaning for the limited purposes of a probable cause and bail hearing the "how" is not relevant.

He said the rest is a matter for another legal forum like a trial.

Carroll told Sawyer to prepare a redacted version of the warrant by the close of business today so he can review it and decide if he'll release it to the defense attorneys.

According to testimony offered by Sawyer during the October 3 arraignment, police found significant quantities of drugs and of cash but said there was no evidence of drug use within the home.

Sawyer said the drugs were found in a laundry basket and mingled within easy reach of two young children in the home, showing disregard for the welfare of his step children.

Sawyer also said police found receipts for purchases of jewelry made between May 27 and August 16 totaling $32,000. He said Sonthikoummane was wearing a necklace valued at $7,000 but that neither he nor Nguan showed any evidence of being employed.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 October 2014 01:39

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Shea-Porter tells Laconia Rotarians of dysfunctional Congress

LACONIA — Speaking to the Laconia Rotary Club yesterday, 1st District Congresswomen Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat from Rochester, remarked that the stalemate in Congress reminded her of a sign her grandfather kept on his wall that read "Let's Compromise and Do It My Way."

Shea Porter, the first woman from New Hampshire elected to national office, won the 1st District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006 and held it in 2008 before losing it to Republican Frank Guinta, the former mayor of Manchester, in 2010. In 2012, she ousted Guinta and this year the two are vying for the seat for the third time.

"Congress can't get its act together," Shea-Porter told the Rotarians. A member of the Armed Services and Natural Resources committees, she said that while the first has worked effectively in a bipartisan manner the second is split along party lines by the issue of climate change.

Meanwhile, Shea-Porter said that although the House passed a budget, a farm bill and violence against women legislation, it has failed to tackle major issues. "We should have had a debate and a vote on the situation in the Middle East," she said, "and Congress has not addressed the economy. The economy is getting better, but, unemployment is still high and wages are flat," she continued, calling for initiatives to generate employment and improve infrastructure. Despite repeated warnings about the effects of climate, including concerns expressed and preparations begun by the military leadership, she said "there has been no environmental legislation for several years." Shea-Porter noted that Congress has also declined to ease the burden of student loan debt or reform the corporate and individual tax codes.

"There is work to be done," Shea-Porter said. "But, it's not the most attractive landscape." Noting that Congress has been working only two days a week, she said that "one of our biggest problems is that we're not there that often." At the same time, she claimed that the Republican majority passed what she called "take-it-or-leave-it" bills, or legislation with no chance of either winning a majority or opening a dialogue in the Senate.

Campaign finance reform, Shea-Porter emphasized, is required to overcome the dysfunctionality of Congress. She rejected term limits, saying "we have term limits — elections. There's a lot to learn," she added "we need experienced people in both parties." The power of money, wielded by special interests and advocacy groups, she claimed, has hamstrung Congress. "Take the money out and you'll start seeing policies that benefit all the people," she said.

In Cloising Shea-Porter urged her listeners to vote on November 4. "If you vote for me or against me, please vote," she said.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 October 2014 01:30

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Hill moves forward with plan to separate students from Franklin schools

by Thomas P. Caldwell

HILL — The Hill School Board is moving forward with the termination of its Authorized Regional Enrollment Area agreement with the Franklin School District and is leaning toward a realignment with the Newfound Area School District, but Chair Shelly Henry said they have not ruled out any of the interested parties at this point.
Hill is even reopening the door to the Winnisquam Regional School District, which failed to respond to the local school district's request for proposals. School Administrative Unit 18 Superintendent Robert McKenney told the school board on Oct. 8 that he had spoken with Dr. Tammy Davis, Winnisquam's superintendent, who told him she would be back in touch after her school board meets on Oct. 21 to let him know if there is any interest in accepting Hill students there.
Newfound provided the most comprehensive proposal but Franklin and the Merrimack Valley School District also sent letters of interest to Hill. Franklin's proposal was to continue under the same terms as the current AREA agreement, while Merrimack Valley stated it looked forward "to the chance to discuss and specify the scope of services and enter into a mutually beneficial agreement with the Hill School District."
The Hill School Board has met twice with its attorneys to discuss how to proceed with the split, what goes into the agreement, and how much the district will have to spend. The board will be meeting with Attorney John Teague again on Oct. 23.
McKenney said the board should begin the negotiation process by Nov. 1 in order to meet the statutory deadlines for hearings and budgeting for the school district meeting in March.
The superintendent noted that, during a law conference he had attended, one of the topics was "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" but the attorneys noted that breaking up was easier than coming together, and they went on to discuss the complexities of working out an agreement to join another district.
A key consideration is the cost per pupil in a tuition agreement, and Business Administrator Amanda Bergquist said she is waiting for her counterpart at Newfound, Michael Limanni, to provide that information. McKenney noted that SAU 4 Superintendent Stacy Buckley who oversees the Newfound school district had been in touch to find out the status of the proposal.
The other major item on the Oct. 8 agenda was the 2015-2016 budget, and McKenney cautioned the board that the legal costs associated with ending the AREA agreement already are straining the current-year budget of $2,000. At the moment, next year's budget for legal costs remains undetermined.
Another item subject to change next year is the tuition account. Currently Hill sends 22 students to Franklin Middle School at a cost of $11,191 per student; and 39 students to Franklin High School at $9,089 per student. Both the number of students and the per pupil cost will be adjusted later in the budget year to reflect changes in the school population and the new tuition costs if Hill sends its students elsewhere.
Bergquist said the salary account will increase to compensate for a Title I grant that may not be available next year and that there is a new item in next year's budget for tutors because there may be a need for services beyond the school day. The school board was to discuss that item in further detail during a nonpublic session at the end of the meeting.
A proposal to purchase a new server for the school district's computer network elicited some discussion with Henry saying there has been a lot of technology spending in recent years and she was reluctant to support another large expenditure. Jennie D. Blake School Principal Jay Lewis said the current server was handed down from Franklin and that it has crashed a number of times. The school board asked for a listing of all computers and equipment with Henry saying there are a number of iPads in the school and she wondered if they were being used as much as they could be.
The proposed budget calls for 20 additional hours for special education due to an anticipated increase in numbers next year.
Bergquist said she is placing a 10 percent increase in the health services budget but she expected the actual increase to be much less than that. The insurance company will not have an updated figure for another month or so, she said.
Among other news at the meeting was Lewis' announcement that School Resource Officer Chris Hart will begin Drug and Alcohol Reduction Education (DARE) classes for grades 4 and 6 on Oct. 16.
NH Partners in Education has named the Jennie D. Blake School a Blue Ribbon Award School for its active volunteerism, and Dr. Dominique Beaulieu, program director at Riverbend Community Mental Health, is working to establish a community outreach program for students and parents in the school building.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 October 2014 01:24

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Police recovered cocaine from car of drunk man who was not behind the wheel; his defense protesting search

SUPERIOR COURT — A Gilford man who is charged with one count of possession of cocaine is asking a judge to disallow all of the evidence seized from his car because he says it should not have been towed or inventoried.

Atty. Steve Mirkin says Richard Varricchio, of Lake Street was a passenger in his own car on November 30, 2013 when the driver was pulled over by a N.H. State Police Trooper on Route 11 just east of the Walmart parking lot entrance.

When the driver failed a field sobriety test he was charged with driving while intoxicated, arrested and taken to jail.

The officer spoke to Varricchio, who allegedly told police he had also been drinking and didn't think he should drive. Police took Varricchio into "protective custody," handcuffed him, and drove him less than a mile to his parent's home on Lake Street in Gilford.

While one trooper was taking Varricchio home, a second trooper conducted an inventory search of the car and allegedly found a baggie containing cocaine.

Mirkin argues that the cocaine should not be allowed into evidence because his client wasn't properly taken into protective custody and that the search was unlawful.

He said the trooper never determined Varricchio was impaired — only that he had been drinking — and that Varricchio exercised proper caution when he chose not to drive in front of a state police officer.

He said being "taken into protective custody" is not an arrest but is a seizure that may not be made without adhering to constitutional provisions against unreasonable seizure.

Mirkin said there is no exact legal definition of intoxication and the closest he could come was a 1983 case that described a person as being unable to walk five feet without stumbling or stand without supporting himself.

Mirkin said the officer who placed Varricchio into custody made none of those observations so he should not have put him into protective custody, implying Varricchio could have walked home and/or made other arrangements to get home and retrieve his car.

Mirkin also noted that from the discovery provided to him, Varricchio's car was in the breakdown lane just east of the entry to Walmart. He said the law states that only time a car is to be towed, is when "the owner of custodian of the vehicle is under arrest or otherwise incapacitated and the vehicle is a menace to traffic if permitted to remain."

He also argued that the car had to be a menace or an active threat to the safety of others at that time in order to be towed but the car was in a wide breakdown lane on Route 11.

Mirkin said that an inventory search must be conducted in a neutral manner and not in an investigatory manner. It is designed to protect the property interests of the owner and the safety interests of the police.

He said there is no indication that once the trooper found the baggie that he stopped his search and applied for a warrant. There is also no indication that Varricchio gave the police permission to search it.

Mirkin said the state police's own policy requires an inventory form to be left in the car that documents what was in the inventory search and no such form was found.

Belknap County Prosecutor Melissa Guldbrandsen countered that the trooper properly "determined that Varricchio was not fit to operate the vehicle and he was placed into protective custody."

She said the trooper's statement said that "Varricchio indicated he consumed too much alcohol and could not drive. I observed Varricchio reeked of an alcoholic beverage, had red glassy eyes and slurred speech..."

Guldbrandsen said the troopers exercised sound discretion when they honored Varricchio's own statements that he couldn't drive and provided him a courtesy ride to his parent's home."

She said it is consistent with the laws governing protective custody and in the alternative, the troopers could have brought him to the Belknap County Jail.

She said there is no reason the troopers should have left the car on the side of the road indefinitely. She also said that the inventory was done according to a neutral policy and that she will call two of three troopers involved to testify at the suppression hearing.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 October 2014 01:19

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