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Jim Kenyon: Judge finds Canaan woman not guilty of resisting arrest

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



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, June 04, 2019

A New Hampshire judge recently found Crystal Eastman not guilty of resisting arrest following her roadside encounter with a Canaan cop that sent her to the hospital in an ambulance with a serious knee injury.

It wasn’t a total victory for Eastman — the judge found her guilty of disobeying a police officer. (More on that in a bit.)

In his six-page ruling, however, Lebanon District Court Judge Michael Mace covered more ground than Eastman’s guilt or innocence on a couple of misdemeanor charges.

Mace also took Canaan officials to task for refusing to turn over a taxpayer-funded consultant’s report to prosecutor Christopher O’Connor. It was commissioned by the Selectboard to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident and apparently to review other police matters. Conducted by a retired state trooper for Municipal Resources Inc., (MRI, for short) of Meredith, N.H., the report was delivered to the town last fall.

Canaan’s decision to “forbid him from reviewing the report forced Mr. O’Connor to prosecute a complicated case of significant public interest with one arm tied behind his back while dueling two highly-skilled and experienced criminal defense attorneys to boot,” the judge wrote. “He did so admirably and perhaps would have done better for his client (the town) as to the second charge (resisting arrest) had his client trusted him to do the sort of job he does every day in this court.”

Canaan taxpayers have reason to be upset as well. They deserve to see what they paid for. The last time I checked, taxpayers were on the hook for nearly $45,000 in legal and consulting bills the Selectboard had rung up since the Eastman case began more than 18 months ago.

In February, I asked for the report under the state’s right-to-know law. Canaan officials claimed the report must remain confidential because it involves town personnel.

As I’ve written before, this saga dates back to November 2017 when Eastman, who had no previous criminal record, was following her daughter’s school bus on its afternoon route. Eastman was worried the driver was, among other things, prone to speeding.

After the bus driver reported that someone was following her, Canaan police officer Samuel Provenza caught up with the bus and Eastman’s white SUV. Canaan being a small town, Eastman and Provenza recognized each other. She grew up in Canaan, and he’d been a cop in town since 2012. (Provenza resigned this winter to take a trooper’s job with New Hampshire State Police.)

What happened after Provenza approached Eastman in her vehicle is at the crux of the case. I was in Lebanon District Court in January when both testified.

Provenza said that Eastman didn’t hand over her driver’s license on demand and refused to get out of her car. Eastman said that she got scared when Provenza stuck his head through the open driver’s seat window and began “sniffing” her. He then grabbed her hair and yanked her out of the SUV, tossing her to the ground and handcuffing her, she testified.

The dashboard video camera in Provenza’s cruiser wasn’t working that day “thus injecting another level of opacity to an already murky set of events,” the judge wrote.

The encounter left Eastman with a torn ACL in her left knee, which required surgery and extensive physical therapy. Eastman, a heavy equipment operator with the state’s transportation department, hasn’t been medically cleared to return to the job. She’s currently working part-time for the state, cleaning offices.

Both Eastman and Provenza provided “credible testimony,” the judge said, but the town’s refusal to “reveal whatever information it has in its possession undermined the credibility of its own case.”

Last week, I talked with O’Connor, a former police officer, at the courthouse about the ruling. He didn’t agree with the judge that Canaan’s refusal to release the MRI report had left him “high and dry.”

In reviewing Provenza’s personnel file, O’Connor said he found no mention of the Eastman incident. By O’Connor’s thinking, if the MRI report had come up with any wrongdoing, state law would have required Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank to have included the information in Provenza’s personnel file.

O’Connor told me he understands why Canaan didn’t want to give up the report.

“They didn’t want to open a Pandora’s box,” he said, meaning it could set a future precedent for defense lawyers and the public to claim that officers’ personnel files are public information. (From my viewpoint, that would be a good thing. The more transparency in police conduct, the better.)

Lebanon attorneys Peter Decato and Paul McDonough, who represent Eastman, argued the report should be part of the court record. The town, however claimed “privilege,” which made the information exempt from court proceedings.

I reached out to Provenza and Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson to talk about the case on Monday. I didn’t hear back.

Eastman, 35, is scheduled to be sentenced July 16, She faces a maximum fine of $1,200, plus court fees. In a motion filed on Friday, Eastman’s lawyers asked the judge to reconsider his guilty verdict, arguing that Provenza’s stop was unlawful. Since following a school bus isn’t a crime, Provenza had no reason to ask for her driver’s license and registration, her lawyers say.

On Monday, Eastman told me the balky knee still causes her pain with hiking being at the top of the list.

“I can’t do a lot of things I used to do,” she said.

A lot of people who have heard about her lengthy legal battle have told her that she should “give up, pay her fine and move on,” she said.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m not guilty of doing anything wrong.”

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