Jim Kenyon: Power Play
I’ve long thought that Hanover police arrest Dartmouth students for underage drinking to make money for the town. Maybe pumping up the town coffers isn’t the cops’ only motivation, though.
Arresting underage drinkers can be quite the power trip, too, or so it seems from a recent case.
In underage drinking cases involving 18- to 20-year-olds, Hanover cops decide who goes to court and who doesn’t. Students who don’t play by Hanover police rules can suddenly find they are no longer “qualified” for the department’s court diversion program. And heaven forbid if a student says (or writes) something that Hanover cops find less than flattering. Off to court, you go, First Amendment or no First Amendment.
Case in point: On the night of April 20, 20-year-old Ani Xu was at a private gathering in White River Junction. She didn’t know the people who lived there, but one of her friends did. During the visit, Xu started to feel ill. A friend called a cab and helped Xu back to her on-campus apartment in Hanover, where Xu began vomiting and spitting up blood. The friend was worried that Xu, who is a Dartmouth graduate school student from Canada, had been slipped a “roofie,” a sedative that can render a person incapacitated, much like consuming lots of alcohol.
The friend called Dartmouth security, which led to a Hanover ambulance being summoned. Hanover police officer Dan Fowler also showed up at Xu’s apartment. (Shadowing ambulance calls is a favorite trick that Hanover police routinely use to nab underage college drinkers. It allows them to turn a medical matter into an easy arrest.)
In his report, which I was able to obtain a copy of thanks to a change earlier this year in New Hampshire public records law, Fowler wrote that he talked with Xu when she was being checked out medically “in the ambulance.” According to Fowler, “Xu said she had consumed about six beers, but that was all.” A witness later contradicted Xu’s story and told police she had been drinking hard liquor.
Fowler wrote that later in the day he informed Xu by email that he could charge her with “unlawful possession and intoxication.” In New Hampshire, underage drinking is considered a violation, which is one level of offense below a misdemeanor.
But since Xu was a first-time offender, Fowler wrote, he was offering her an opportunity to enroll in the police department’s alcohol diversion program. She had a week to accept the offer, or go to court.
Eight days after Xu was taken ill, which didn’t require her to be hospitalized, Fowler knocked on her apartment door at about 10 p.m. Xu figured he was there to learn more about her concern that she had been slipped a drug while in White River Junction.
Not the case.
Fowler had come to issue Xu a summons to appear in Lebanon Circuit Court to answer the unlawful possession and intoxication charge. And why was that?
Fowler informed Xu that she had missed the seven-day deadline to sign up for the department’s alcohol diversion program. Xu said she hadn’t received Fowler’s email. She also didn’t have any recollection of the officer providing her information about the program while she was in the ambulance.
After indicating she was unfamiliar with the diversion program, the offer was renewed. But she still had to come up with $400, which is how much Hanover police charge for the one-day class.
So Xu took to the Internet. She opened a public page on Indiegogo, a site built for people wanting to raise money for different causes. In Xu’s case, the cause was her own. With tuition, housing and food bills to pay, Xu wrote, she couldn’t afford the $400 fee.
As part of her Internet fundraising pitch, Xu argued that police had treated her unfairly. “I was drugged, not drunk,” she wrote.
Led by friends at the University of Toronto, where she completed her undergraduate degree at age 19, Xu received $395 in pledges almost overnight.
Capt. Frank Moran, who is running the department while Chief Nick Giaccone is on medical leave, wasn’t amused. After hearing about her social media fundraising efforts from a source, Moran went on the Internet, according to the police report. Moran claimed Xu had set up the site for the “purpose of misrepresenting the circumstances of her arrest and treatment.” He also apparently disapproved of her fundraising efforts.
On May 8, Moran notified Xu that he was rescinding the diversion offer. I wanted to talk with Moran, but he said he couldn’t discuss an active case.
Last week, I met with Xu, who said she was “stressed out” by what had happened since that fateful night last month. “The situation is overwhelming,” she said. Xu didn’t want to comment further.
So I will.
Hanover cops seem to think they’re doing college students a favor by offering them an alternative to court. From my viewpoint, it’s the least they can do. They should stop chasing ambulances and leave the college to handle underage drinking matters when students are on campus. Let Dartmouth decide which sanctions and educational programs are appropriate.
Police shouldn’t be in the substance abuse education business. And make no mistake, it’s a business. Of the $45,000 or so in diversion program fees collected annually in Hanover, roughly half goes to the substance abuse counselors hired to conduct the classes. The remaining money — $20,000 to $25,000 a year — ends up in the town’s general fund.
Xu is scheduled to appear tomorrow in Lebanon Circuit Court. She plans to plead not guilty.
Instead of clogging up a New Hampshire court system that already has more cases than it can handle, Hanover cops could renew their diversion offer to Xu.
It would certainly be within their power.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net.