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Lafond defense seeks to have drug & traffic charges severed from trial on manslaughter & negligent homicide counts

LACONIA — With Amy Lafond scheduled to stand trial in June on charges that her reckless and negligent driving caused the death of one teenage girl and severely injured another on Messer Street last year, both the defense and prosecution are seeking to define the scope of the proceedings and nature of the evidence.

Lafond, 53, is charged with manslaughter and two counts of negligent homicide (alternative theories) arising from an incident on April 19 when she allegedly drove into two teenage girls on the sidewalk bordering the Messer Street Bridge, killing Lilyanna Johnson and seriously injuring Allyssa Miner. She is also charged with several drug offenses and traffic violations.
Although Belknap County Attorney Melissa C. Guldbrandsen has said that toxicology tests found elevated levels of Oxycodone and the presence of Gabapentin, both prescription drugs, in LaFond's bloodstream, she has not been charged with driving while impaired. However, when Lafond was arraigned, Guldbrandsen said, "we are alleging that the accident occurred after she consumed drugs."
Attorney Mark Sisti, who represents Lafond, has asked the court to sever the charges for drug and traffic offenses from those for manslaughter and negligent homicide, claiming that the first set of charges is not related to the second. He cited an opinion of the New Hampshire Supreme Court holding that related offenses must be based on "a common plan," that is, "a definite prior design which included doing the charged acts as part of its consummation."

It is not sufficient, Sisti claimed, to contend that a sequence of actions "resembles a design." Instead "the prior conduct must be intertwined with what follows, such that the charged acts are mutually dependent," he said.
Sisti insisted there is "no interdependence among the charges" against Lafond. He noted in deciding whether charges should be severed, the Supreme Court held that courts should consider whether "in view of the number of offenses charged and the complexity of the evidence to be offered, the trier of fact will be able to distinguish the evidence and apply the law intelligently to each offense." In this case, Sisti concluded, "the jury will run a considerable risk of confusing the evidence the state will offer to support the manslaughter and negligent homicide charges from the drug charges" and "be hard pressed not to consider the alleged presence of contraband as evidence in the other charges."

Meanwhile, Guldbrandsen has objected to Sisti's earlier motion to exclude the results of blood tests taken after the accident. He claimed that because Lafond was not advised that the results could be used against her at trial, her consent to the blood draw was "not fully knowing." Nor he argued should the results of a second mandatory blood draw, required by law of drivers involved in fatal accidents provided there is probable cause to believe the driver caused the collision, be admitted as evidence.
The Attorney General, Sisti explained, has acknowledged that because the law does not require either a warrant or probable cause to believe the driver was impaired, it is not clear that the test results can be introduced as evidence in criminal proceedings. Consequently, the Attorney General advises "wherever possible, officers should document any facts supporting a finding of probable cause to believe that the driver is impaired." But, the officer who spoke with Lafond and requested the blood draw reported that "there was no reason or probable cause for me to believe that she was impaired by drugs or alcohol."
Guldbrandsen countered that Lafond signed a "Consent to Search" form, which provides notification of her right to withhold her consent, in the presence of both a police officer and her husband, Marc. "The fact that the defendant was not told that the blood could be used at trial," she argues, "does not vitiate her consent."
Moreover, Guldbrandsen referred to the statute bearing on confidential communications between physicians and patients, which does not apply to the release of blood drawn and test results taken from a person for purposes of diagnosis and treatment in connection with an incident leading to an investigation for driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She said that a detective obtained a search warrant for the results of the blood test, which the defense has not challenged. In light of Lafond's consent and the search warrant, Guldbrandsen concluded that Sisti's challenge to the second, mandatory blood test is "misplaced."
Guldbrandsen filed a motion asking the court to allow "computer-generated accident reconstruction animations" to be introduced in evidence. The animations, she said, were created by Carl Lakowicz of Northpoint Collision Consultants from measurements and data collected by the Belknap Regional Accident Investigation Team and would offer a "visual illustration" of the sequence of events, including the collision, to supplement the testimony of expert witnesses. Altogether she asked to introduce eight animations, including three of the collision from different angles.

Anticipating that Marc Lafond, the defendant's husband, would appear as a hostile witness, Guldbrandsen also asked the court to rule that his criminal record could be used to impeach his credibility should he testify on his wife's behalf. Court rules permit the introduction of evidence that a witness has been convicted of a felony or crime of dishonesty within the past 10 years. Marc Lafond pled guilty to two counts of possession of a narcotic in August,  2005, a month after being convicted of theft of services, a misdemeanor.
Guldbrandsen acknowledged that animations were excluded from a case in 2009 when the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence that the data used to construct them would ensure "a fair and accurate representation of the accident." She said that while the case law was limited, the decision to admit the animations was "within the discretion of the court."
Finally Sisiti has sought permission from the judge to question potential jurors to ensure that those who are seated to hear the case are sufficiently impartial. State statute entitles attorneys to conduct so-called "voir dire" — French for "to speak the truth" — in civil but not criminal cases. On the strength of the constitutional right to a fair trial Sisti remarked that "implicit in the Legislative enactment is the unconstitutional premise that criminal defendants are not entitled to the same procedures to ensure that criminal trial juries are equally impartial."
Sisti referred to studies that indicate "voir dire" conducted by attorneys provide defendants with greater protection of a fair trial than those conducted by judges. Because the case has attracted "a great of media attention" and so many of the witnesses are local residents, Sisti emphasized the importance of selecting an impartial jury. The trial, he explained, "may touch emotions and personally held beliefs as there are references to careless operation of a motor vehicle,possible drug use and the infliction of injuries and death upon very young children."
Justice James D. O'Neill, III will hear oral arguments of pre-trial motions at a hearing on Wednesday, May 14 beginning at 1:30 p.m. The trial, which is expected to last three weeks, is scheduled to begin on Monday, June 9.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 April 2014 01:00

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Effort to adjust compensation for elected county officials fails

LACONIA — The Executive Committee of the Belknap County Convention yesterday voted unanimously to recommend the convention maintain the compensation of elected county officials at their current rates, but only after attempts to raise the salary of the Registrar of Deeds and lower the salary of the County Attorney failed.

Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), proposed raising the salary of the registrar by $3,000 for two years, from $68,415 to $71,415, to compensate Barbara Luther, the incumbent, for legal costs she incurred in 2012 when the Belknap County Commission took her to court for declining to implement operational changes recommended by the independent auditors.

The issue has been a bone of contention between the convention and the commission for the past two years. After the commission settled its dispute with Luther in August 2012, she requested the county pay the cost of her defense, which amounted to $5,200. The commission refused. At Tilton's urging the convention added an appropriation to the 2013 county budget, but the commission, still declining to pay the fees, assigned the funds to another purpose.

Calling his motion "very simple," Tilton asked the Executive Committee to reduce the salary of each of three county commissioners by $1,000 a year to fund the increase for the registrar. He added that if he is still serving on the convention after two years, he would support curtailing the raise and returning the registrar's salary to $68,415.

Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, agreed that the registrar has not been treated properly, but noted that her salary is relatively high compared to registrars in other counties, who, with the exception of those in Merrimack and Rockingham counties, earn between $18,000 and $10,000 less. She said that she had intended to propose lowering the registrar's salary.

When the committee deadlocked on a 3-3 tie, Tilton's motion failed. Tilton, together with Reps. Herb Vadney and Bob Greemore, both Republicans of Meredith, voted in favor, while Worsman was joined by Reps. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead) and Jane Cormnier (R-Alton) in opposition.

Worsman proposed trimming the salary of County Attorney Melissa C. Guldbrandsen from $89,164 to $85,000, explaining that only her counterpart in Merrimack County earned more. Tilton warned, "It's hard to get county attorneys" and reducing the salary would be "very much a disincentive."

Vadney said, "We shouldn't be playing with personalities" and "It's wrong to lower salaries." The question, he continued, is "how did they get this high in the first place?" Conceding that the convention could not reverse what occurred in the past, he said, "We can stop it."

With that Worsman withdrew her motion and the committee agreed not to change the salary schedule.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 April 2014 12:53

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Cincinatti, Ohio police recover vehicle stolen from Planet Fitness in Belmont

BELMONT — A vehicle reported stolen from the parking lot at Planet Fitness on April 19 has been recovered by police in Cincinnati.

Lt. Rich Mann said two people are in police custody in Ohio as part of the investigation that led them to the stolen 2013 Ford Explorer.

A female patron of Planet Fitness reported that her keys had been stolen from her pocketbook from her unlocked locker sometime between 9:40 a.m. and 11:20 a.m. on April 19. When the women went to the parking lot, she also noticed her SUV was gone. A second female patron also reported her keys were stolen. However, her car was not taken.

The victim had left her cell phone in her car and Belmont Police were able to "ping" it to Billerica, Mass.

Mann said the recovered car is in good condition and the victim is working with her insurance company to return the car to New Hampshire.

He said Belmont Police are working with Cincinnati Police and the case remains under investigation.

Mann said that at this time, there is no known connection between the car theft and the Felony Lane Gang — so called for their use of stolen and forged checks by cashing them in the outermost lane of banks drive-up windows — but they aren't ruling anything out.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 April 2014 12:48

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Laconia police chief lays out options to address drug abuse

LACONIA — Police Chief Chris Adams last evening offered the City Council a menu of measures his department would pursue to strengthen efforts to curb drug trafficking and reduce substance abuse, if the department gets more funding.

Adams reminded the councilors they had requested a plan to address what Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) called "the scourge of this community." Instead of a plan, he suggested a number of options, each bearing a different cost, while assuring the council that "we will do as many of these initiatives as we can on our own without additional funding."

With $72,000 Adams said that the department would hire an additional patrol officer as assign a member of the department with the requisite qualifications and experience as a "community outreach coordinator" with sole responsibility for the campaign against drugs. He said that in the first year much of the officer's time would be devoted to developing a "PET" (Prevention, Enforcement, Treatment) program in partnership with treatment agencies, emergency services and community groups. The officer would also serve as liaison to the Recovery Court and, in particular, would identify those among 150 to 200 individuals arrested on drug charges each year best suited to the program and monitor their progress.

The Community Outreach Coordinator, who would be a patrol officer in civilian clothes, would also oversee the department's participation in educational and preventative programs and initiatives undertaken by diverse organizations within the community, including the public schools, as well as "POP" (Problem Oriented Policing) conducted by the department itself.

Alternatively, Adams said, the department could hire a part-time officer or civilian to assume as many of the duties of the full-time position as time would allow. He expected a part-time person would concentrate on working with the Recovery Court and the POP projects. The cost of a part-time person would be $20,000.

The chief told the council that the department's overtime budget was level funded at $100,000, but an additional $30,000 would fund an increased presence of uniformed and undercover officers patrolling designated areas on Friday and Saturday nights. He said that the tactic was introduced this past weekend with two officers each working three hours. Adams said that this option would be strictly an enforcement effort aimed at making the city an inhospitable place for dealers.

Noting that the department is short on up-to-date audio and video surveillance equipment, Adams said that funds could be used to purchase a body wire for use by both police officers and confidential informants, which would cost about $10,000. Other necessary covert audio and video equipment, including a camera fitted with long and low light lenses and surveillance camera for public buildings, would cost another $5,000.

Adams said that the department is taking inventory of surveillance cameras operated by private businesses that are already in place and suggested that with support from the department some of these systems could be enhanced.

Charlie St. Clair, owner of the Laconia Antique Center, which was broken into and robbed last week, urged the council to invest in video surveillance. Echoing Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5), who suggested video surveillance could be financed with the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds, St. Clair said, "I can't think of a better use for the TIF money."

Finally, Adams proposed the mayor convene a task force, consisting of members drawn from the City Council, Police Department and Lakes Region General Hospital along with a senior from Laconia High School, a city resident and two from the field of prevention and treatment. He applauded the council for giving the drug dealing and substance abuse high priority and suggested a task force would keep the issue on "the front burner."

The council agreed to incorporate the proposals from the Police Department into its discussion of the budget, with a caution from Mayor Ed Engler that any additional funding must be offset by reductions elsewhere in order to budget within the tax cap.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 April 2014 01:48

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