LACONIA — A former Belknap County deputy sheriff whose conviction for raping a female inmate was overturned is scheduled to be back in court this week to learn whether he could face new charges.

Ernest Justin Blanchette, 39, most recently of Tilton, was freed from prison after the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in May 2017 that prosecutors presented insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was “employed” by the Belknap County jail or the state prison at the time, as required by law.

A Hillsborough County jury convicted Blanchette of stopping at an abandoned house in Manchester while transporting a female inmate from Belknap County to the women’s prison in Goffstown, and engaging in sex.

In Oct. 2017, Judge James D. O’Neill III dismissed four charges pending in Belknap County Superior Court alleging that Blanchette participated in similar criminal conduct with inmates when he took them to dental appointments in Tilton in 2014 and 2015. He was also charged with coercing female inmates to engage in sexual acts with their respective male partners while he drove the transport vehicle.

Deputy Belknap County Attorney Adam Woods has filed a motion asking a judge to clarify whether the dismissal of the Lakes Region charges was “with prejudice.” Legally, the term precludes charges from being brought again.

In general, an action taken with prejudice is essentially final; in particular, “dismissal with prejudice” forbids a party from refiling the case, and might occur either because of misconduct on the part of the prosecutor or could be the result of an out-of-court agreement or settlement.

Dismissal without prejudice would leave the prosecution an option to refile, and is often a response to procedural or technical problems with the criminal complaints that the state could correct if they sought new indictments.

In his motion seeking to clarify the court’s order, Woods wrote that dismissal with prejudice was unwarranted as there was no evidence presented that the state engaged in any misconduct.

Shortly after the pending charges in Belknap County were dismissed, Woods said, he would review the case to see if there was sufficient evidence to charge Blanchette without alleging that he had committed the crimes under the color of law while working as a deputy sheriff.

The state previously charged that Blanchette had used his authority as a deputy sheriff to coerce his victim into having sex. However, Blanchette argued that the state failed to prove its case, as he was not working directly under either the Belknap County jail or the state prison at the time of the alleged crime; Blanchette was employed by the county sheriff’s office – and the law draws a clear distinction, his attorney Brad Davis successfully argued.

“As a matter of law, a county sheriff is not employed by a correctional institution,” he told Judge O’Neill, adding that one is not merely employed by a jail because he or she transports inmates.

Davis, himself a former police officer, argued part of state law’s definition of a rape through coercion involves the victim being incarcerated in a correctional facility “where the actor is employed.” While the law specifically cites correctional officers and probation/parole officers, it does not name deputies or other law enforcement officials.

In objecting to the motion to dismiss, Woods maintained the Legislature’s intent was to criminalize all sexual contact between inmates and those who are in positions of “supervisory or disciplinary authority over them,” both inside and outside the walls of a correctional institution.

After learning of the outcome of the case, Republican Senate leaders pledged that tightening the law would be a top priority.

A hearing on the prosecutor’s motion for clarification is scheduled to be held on Dec. 6, at 1:30 p.m.

In objecting to the motion to dismiss, prosecutors maintain the Legislature’s intent was to criminalize all sexual contact between inmates and those who are in positions of supervisory or disciplinary authority over them.{