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Jim Kenyon: Plenty of question marks follow Canaan woman’s sentence

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, July 20, 2019

As she entered the courtroom last Tuesday, Crystal Eastman walked with a stiff-legged limp — her surgically repaired left knee a painful reminder of her roadside encounter with a Canaan cop nearly 20 months ago.

The 35-year-old Eastman was in Lebanon District Court for a sentencing hearing. This spring, Judge Michael Mace found her guilty of disobeying a police officer for not handing over her driver’s license and vehicle registration fast enough for the cop’s liking. (She was found not guilty of resisting arrest.)

Having followed Eastman’s case from the beginning, I’m still trying to figure out why charges were filed in the first place.

The last time I checked, following a school bus from a safe distance — even in Donald Trump’s America — wasn’t a crime.

But apparently it’s enough reason for cops — in Canaan, at least — to use their power to trample the Fourth Amendment rights of a law-abiding citizen.

On Nov. 30, 2017, Canaan police received a report that someone in a white SUV was following a school bus on its afternoon route.

Officer Samuel Provenza caught up with the bus and Eastman on Grafton Turnpike Road, not far from where she and her family live.

Provenza flipped on his blue lights. Eastman pulled over. Provenza, who recognized Eastman as a Canaan resident, wanted to know what she was up to. Eastman explained that her daughter was on the bus, and she’d heard the driver was, among other things, prone to speeding. For her own peace of mind, Eastman decided to check it out.

At that point, Provenza could have wished her a good day and moved on. Instead he demanded to see her license and registration.

What happened next is in dispute. On the witness stand, Eastman and Provenza differed in their recollections, but the judge said both provided “credible testimony.”

In he-said, she-said cases, a police video of the encounter can provide invaluable evidence. In this case, the public would have had a chance to judge whether Provenza used excessive force against the 5-foot-3, 125-pound Eastman while pulling her out of car, forcing her to the ground and handcuffing her.

Just one problem.

Canaan police say the dashboard camera in Provenza’s cruiser wasn’t working that day.

After her arrest, Eastman was taken by ambulance to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where she later underwent major knee surgery for a torn ACL.

Without video evidence or eyewitnesses, I’m not convinced the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. (The judge obviously disagreed, at least on the charge of disobeying an officer.)

At the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Christopher O’Connor recommended a $500 fine, plus court fees, a fairly standard penalty for defendants without lengthy criminal records in misdemeanor cases.

Eastman’s attorney, Paul McDonough, of Lebanon, argued that in this case, the standard penalty was uncalled for.

Mace seemed to agree. After giving it some thought, he suspended the fine and court fees, which totaled $620. If Eastman stays out of trouble for six months, she will owe nothing.

But as McDonough pointed out, Eastman has already paid a heavy price. Before being injured, she held a good job with New Hampshire’s highway department as a heavy-equipment operator, plowing snow and running a bulldozer.

“She was one of the few women in the state doing this work,” McDonough told the judge.

Before the encounter, Eastman and her husband, Doug, who is also a heavy equipment operator with the state, and their teenage daughter enjoyed a comfortable life. That’s been turned upside down.

“I have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost my career,” Eastman told the judge. “My family has struggled financially and emotionally.”

After her surgery and extensive physical therapy, Eastman still hasn’t received medical clearance to return to her physically demanding job that paid $42,000 a year. She’s been relegated to working part time for the state, cleaning offices.

Eastman now is considering appealing her conviction to the state Supreme Court, McDonough said.

Her case would seem to rest on convincing justices that she was the victim of an unlawful traffic stop. If the justices agree, everything that occurred after the stop could be what’s known in legal parlance as “fruit of the poisonous tree” and couldn’t be used against her.

Regardless of whether she appeals, Eastman could still file a civil lawsuit against Canaan police in federal court, alleging the encounter amounted to a violation of her civil rights.

I hope she does, though those lawsuits are tough to win. The government has set a high bar for establishing police misconduct, which allows cops to get away with a lot of bad behavior.

But it’s important that police be held accountable. A federal lawsuit also might make Canaan town officials sweat a bit.

Last year, the Selectboard hired a consulting firm — at taxpayers’ expense — to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident and apparently to review other police matters.

The town has had the report since last fall but refuses to make it available to the public. Town officials claim the report must remain confidential because it involves town personnel. (That’s even though Provenza left Canaan earlier this year to take a trooper’s position with New Hampshire State Police.)

A federal lawsuit might be the only way the public learns about the inner workings of Canaan police.

As Eastman’s case shows, the public certainly can’t rely on police video recording skills to get to the truth.

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