Jim Kenyon: Charlestown prosecutor running up charges against police provocateur

  • A screen grab of a video on Marc Manchon’s Press NH Now YouTube channel shows an interaction between Manchon and Charlestown Police Chief Patrick Connors outside Whelen Engineering in Charlestown, Vt., last month. The online traction Manchon has received from his conflict with town officials, including an arrest for allegedly obstructing government administration and what Manchon describes as a shoving altercation with a Selectboard member at the town offices, has drawn him back to the small town multiple times for a series of videos. (YouTube)

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/9/2022 7:18:56 AM
Modified: 1/9/2022 7:18:07 AM

When a police officer uses his immense powers to make an unmerited arrest, it’s the job of a prosecutor to — at the very least — use her own discretion. Call it righting a wrong.

Unfortunately, Charlestown prosecutor Jessica Hodgman either lacks the fortitude to go against the town’s police chief, Patrick Connors, or she condones his actions during an encounter with YouTuber Marc Manchon in October.

I’m not sure which would be more troubling.

Hodgman didn’t return my phone calls last week, so I didn’t get the chance to ask if she’d watched the video of Connors losing his cool with Manchon in the police station lobby. Connors is seen informing the 35-year-old Manchon, of Suncook, N.H., that he’s under arrest and orders him to “turn around and put your hands behind your back.” The chief leads Manchon away in handcuffs behind closed doors.

I’ve sampled enough of Manchon’s videos on his YouTube channel — Press NH Now — to know he can be offensive and combative. He’s also an unapologetic publicity hound. But boorish behavior isn’t a crime, as much as we might wish it is sometimes.

Manchon, with video camera in hand, stopped by the police station on Oct. 27 to pick up public records that he’d requested under the state’s right-to-know law. Connors was noticeably unhappy as his department was flooded with calls from Manchon’s YouTube livestream viewers, even as Manchon — perhaps facetiously — asserted he was definitely not telling his viewers to call the Charlestown station. So Connors used his arrest powers to silence a critic. Manchon was freed later in the day after paying a $40 bail commissioner’s fee.

Hodgman — at Connors’ request — charged Manchon with “obstructing government administration.”

That was a new one for me, but apparently it’s serious. Manchon faces up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000, if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

He also was charged with disorderly conduct: Manchon was causing a “breach of peace and public inconvenience by disrupting the orderly conduct of business in the Charlestown Police Department,” according to the Class B misdemeanor complaint signed by Connors that I found in court records.

Connors declined to discuss the case when I contacted him last week.

Manchon has pleaded not guilty. In a phone interview, he told me that he’s been arrested a half-dozen times in recent years on similar charges in other towns but has yet to be convicted.

“All I’m doing is recording with a camera,” he said. “I fight all of these cases.”

As Charlestown’s prosecutor, Hodgman could have put a stop to the chief’s officious enforcement months ago.

“In New Hampshire, prosecutors have unreviewable authority to discontinue a charge if they want to,” Norwich attorney George Ostler told me. “They have total control.”

(Ostler, who has been practicing criminal defense law in Vermont and New Hampshire for 38 years, isn’t involved in the Charlestown case.)

From my viewpoint, Hodgman has not only failed to invoke her prosecutorial discretion, she’s made matters worse by engaging in a practice known as overcharging.

By bringing multiple charges and threatening jail time, prosecutors often hope to coerce a defendant into pleading guilty to a lesser crime — in Manchon’s case, disorderly conduct — that doesn’t call for incarceration.

“It’s a leverage situation,” said Ostler, making it clear that he wasn’t referring specifically to the Charlestown case, with which he was unfamiliar. “This is a problem in the criminal justice system. It happens all the time.”

From Ostler’s experience, the “vast majority of charges brought are at the upper level of what the evidence supports,” he said.

I don’t know Hodgman, so perhaps I’m being too tough on her. But I know her actions exemplify a structural problem with New Hampshire’s criminal justice system.

Local prosecutors aren’t elected. Often they’re handpicked by a community’s police department, and their office is located inside the police station.

In some towns, the prosecutor lacks a law degree and hasn’t passed the state bar exam.

At least, Hodgman has that much going for her. She’s a private attorney with an office in Claremont who practices “divorce and family law, juvenile law, domestic violence, bankruptcy, wills and estate planning, and civil litigation,” according to her firm’s website.

She works part-time as town prosecutor in Charlestown, earning $28,000 a year. It’s a good side gig. She doesn’t answer to voters and handles only misdemeanor cases, which rarely draw public scrutiny — until now.

As I wrote in November, Manchon considers himself a First Amendment crusader and government watchdog who drives around New Hampshire with a camera, hoping to catch cops and public employees acting less than professional. His livestream videos sometimes get 20,000 views or more from people across the country.

In Charlestown, Manchon hit the YouTube jackpot.

Along with capturing Connors’ strong-arm tactics in the police station lobby, Manchon managed a couple days later to get under the skin of Selectboard Chairman Jeff Lessels at the town offices.

Lessels is seen on video shoving Manchon out of the public building and grabbing a piece of Manchon’s video equipment, which Charlestown police later returned.

On Dec. 22, following a state police investigation, Lessels pleaded not guilty to simple assault, a Class B misdemeanor that carries no jail time.

Last week, I crossed paths with Lessels outside the town offices while he was on a pipe-smoking break. He politely declined to discuss his case.

Later, I called James Shepard, a private attorney who is prosecuting the case on behalf of the New Hampshire Department of Safety. I didn’t hear back. I was hoping Shepard would say he’s dropping the charge. From what I saw on the video, Lessels behaved like an oaf, but his actions didn’t rise to the level of criminality.

The fact that Lessels and Manchon were charged at all is the real crime in Charlestown.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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