Laurie List reform would end right-to-know lawsuits

New Hampshire Solicitor General Dan Will last fall argues the Laurie list case before the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The State Senate on Thursday approved a compromise bill that would reveal the names of all officers with credibility problems on this list once they had a chance to ask a judge to remove them from it.

CONCORD — Police reform advocates are halfway home to passing a state law that will make public the names of an estimated 270 police officers in the state with credibility problems.

The more challenging half of the reform effort likely lies ahead.

The state Senate’s 24-0 vote Thursday to approve this delicately crafted compromise (HB 471) sends the bill to the House of Representatives, where it’s expected to get more scrutiny.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, credited news media representatives, law enforcement, civil libertarians and minority community advocates for the private talks that produced the proposal senators adopted verbatim with little debate.

“This finds a delicate balance between the rights of officers and the transparency that is vital for our democracy,” Carson said.

The Department of Justice created the secret list — formally known as the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule (EES) — so that information could be revealed privately to defense lawyers if any of these officers took part in an investigation before the court.

No uniform standard exists for placing officers on the so-called Laurie List.

Officers have no current right to appeal that decision. This bill would give officers the right to challenge their presence or addition to this list.

“This has been a very hotly debated issue for a number of years. I would like to thank everyone who came together to resolve this issue,” Carson said.

Many police chiefs have said some officers had no idea they were on the list.

Under this bill, all officers who have been on the list will be notified and given six months to file a lawsuit challenging their inclusion.

The state Department of Justice would update the list online every 30 days and on a quarterly basis would inform the public of the number of officers who have sued to keep their names private.

In the Supreme Court case of Union Leader vs. Fenniman in 1993, justices ruled the identity of these officers was not subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

The court reversed itself in a 2020 decision in a case the Union Leader brought against the town of Salem over a police audit but sent it to a lower court for more review.

If the bill becomes law, it will render moot that lawsuit and other cases in which the Keene Sentinel, Seacoast Newspapers, Concord Monitor, Nashua Telegraph and the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism have been involved, according to Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said the state Police Standards and Training Council would play a pivotal role in determining what information about these officers would remain private, even after their names were released.

Robin Malone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said her group had no role in the private negotiations that produced this compromise. She has said her colleagues have some “concerns” about how the bill will “impact our clients’ rights.”

Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Gov. Chris Sununu created the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), which came up with 48 recommendations, including the public release of the Laurie list.

The group also urged lawmakers to create an independent panel that would hear all non-criminal, police disciplinary cases in the future, along the lines of committees that take up misconduct complaints against judges and lawyers.

Putting that language into a bill all can support during the 2021 legislative session has been harder than the Laurie List issue.

Sununu proposed in his budget trailer bill (HB 2) to form a second commission to craft that process for lawmakers to consider in the future.

The LEACT group further endorsed forming a special unit in the Attorney General’s Office to look into criminal complaints brought against local, county and state law enforcement officers.