Man who sued Hudson in panhandling case found dead in cell at Valley Street jail
MANCHESTER — A homeless Nashua man who won monetary claims against both Hudson and Nashua police over arrests dealing with panhandling and vagrancy was found dead in his cell at the Valley Street jail Sunday afternoon, officials said.
Jeffrey Pendleton, 26, had been in the jail since last Wednesday, a day after Nashua police arrested him on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. A Nashua District Court judge had set his bail at $100 cash, an amount he was unable to raise as a homeless person.
Pendleton was found unconscious in his cell at 2:45 p.m. Sunday. Corrections officers, jail medical staff, Manchester firefighters and ambulance workers tried to revive Pendleton, but he was pronounced dead at 3:19 p.m., the jail said in a statement released Monday.
“There appeared no indication that Mr. Pendleton was in any form of distress,” said Superintendent David Dionne. Manchester police and corrections officials are investigating the death. An autopsy was scheduled for Monday, the corrections department said.
Armed with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, Pendleton won settlements from both Hudson and Nashua police departments last year. Hudson paid Pendleton $7,640 after he was ticketed for panhandling on public property. At the time, he held a sign that read, “Homeless and Struggling.”
Nashua paid Pendleton $10,315 after he spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua library after police forbade him to do so. He died exactly a year after Nashua signed papers agreeing to settle the claims and avoid a lawsuit.
Both initiatives challenged the ability of police to force homeless people from public property.
“We will deeply miss Jeff,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. He described Pendleton as kind and soft-spoken. He said Pendleton wasn’t looking for monetary rewards when he took legal action against the police departments. He wanted police to stop telling people like him to get out of town, Bissonnette said.
“He knew there were people like him out there having similar interactions with law enforcement,” Bissonnette said. “He wanted change, whether if for a black person or simply a poor person out of work.”
He said the ACLU could not do its work without courageous people such as Pendleton.
“We trust that a thorough investigation will be conducted on the circumstances of his tragic and untimely death,” Bissonnette said.
Nashua police said Pendleton was arrested on March 8 at 10 Kinsley St., a private residence, and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Police charged him with a Class A misdemeanor, meaning he would face jail time if convicted.
He was arraigned the following day and incarcerated Valley Street jail.
Dionne said Pendleton had been in Valley Street jail before. Two years ago, Pendleton had achieved trusty status, which meant he was given latitude to perform jobs within the prison walls.
“He’s always been nice here, never a disciplinary problem or anything,” Dionne said.
Pendleton was discovered inside his cell during a head count that takes place during change of shift, Dionne said. Jail officials are reviewing video and speaking to inmates to piece together a time line of Pendleton’s last hours. He said the door to his jail cell was closed when he was discovered.
Pendleton’s death came a day before the U.S. Justice Department wrote state judges across the country about how the poor are treated in courts. The letter raises issues with court fees, fines and the use of cash bail to incarcerate defendants.
In the letter, the Justice Department said that bail practices that result in incarceration based on poverty violate the 14th Amendment.
“Systems that rely primarily on secured monetary bonds without adequate consideration of defendants’ financial means tend to result in the incarceration of poor defendants who pose no threat to public safety solely because they cannot afford to pay,” the letter reads.
Below is the March 14 letter from the U.S. Justice Department to state courts, encouraging them to consider whether fines, fees and bails violate the constitutional rights of the poor:
A telephone message left Monday with the Nashua police prosecutor was not returned. According to the court system, Pendleton’s next hearing was scheduled for April 7, meaning he would likely be in jail for 30 days.
Pendleton was one of five children raised by a single mother, according to the lawsuit he filed against Hudson police. He graduated from high school in Palestine, Ark., and attended an Arkansas community college before moving to New Hampshire with his wife in 2009.
He worked low-wage jobs at McDonald’s and National Tire & Battery, but he lost his job and his life went downhill when the couple divorced in 2013, the suit reads.
He became homeless that year, and spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent. The suit said he was not on government assistance, and he spent the proceeds of his panhandling for food and shelter.
On March 4, 2015, Hudson paid out $37,500 to settle the suit. The majority of the payment covered bills for Pendleton’s lawyers.
Hudson admitted to no wrongdoing, but agreed to a permanent consent order and training for its police.
Then on March 13, 2015, Pendleton agreed to a $15,000 settlement from Nashua authorities. Police had arrested Pendleton the previous May and he was jailed for 33 days after being arrested for violating a “no trespass” order that forbade him from the Nashua public library and adjacent park.