NH police officers as prosecutors: Double duty carries cost
By NANCY BEAN FOSTER
Lt. Rainsford Deware of the Lyndeborough Police Department would prefer to be out in the community instead of stuck behind a desk preparing court cases, so the town is hoping to employ Wilton's prosecutor, attorney Ben Maki, to take on those duties. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)
Though police officers often serve as prosecutors in New Hampshire, many departments are moving away from this practice to keep officers on the streets instead of in district court or behind a desk.
The Lyndeborough Board of Selectmen approved a request last week by Lt. Rainsford Deware to enter into an agreement to have the Wilton Police Department's prosecutor, attorney Ben Maki, handle the prosecution of Lyndeborough's cases. According to Deware, who heads the police department and serves as his department's prosecutor, paying Wilton $7,800 a year to enlist Maki's services is a logical alternative. Instead of spending hours working on cases and traveling to Milford District Court, Deware can focus on community policing and patrols.
"Court takes up a lot of my time," said Deware. "It just makes sense to have a dedicated prosecutor."
Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen said that like many other small towns, his department was relying on an experienced police officer to handle prosecutions of violations and misdemeanors. But Hautanen realized a few years ago that he was wasting a valuable resource by putting a good officer behind a desk. He was also pitting an officer with no formal legal training against defense attorneys with law degrees and in many cases, a lot of experience in court.
"At best, officers get two weeks of training at the police academy to be a prosecutor," said Hautanen. "And they're going up against defense attorneys who at least have three years of law school."
That led to his decision to hire Maki and offer Maki's prosecutorial services to other municipalities, including Lyndeborough. The contract between Wilton and Lyndeborough is based in large part on a similar contract between the town of Littleton and several surrounding communities who also share a prosecutor.
Littleton Police Chief Paul Smith said he wasn't head of the department when an attorney was hired to handle prosecutions, but he said he supported the move. Smith said the system of
using police officers as prosecutors was designed a long time ago when a trial for a DWI would last three hours. Now the same trial for driving while intoxicated can span the better part of two days.
"We're short-handed as it is," said Smith. "I can't have a certified police officer sitting in an office doing paperwork 50 hours per week."
Having an attorney on board at the department also offers a fresh perspective that can make good police officers even better, he said.
"An attorney can help us correct mistakes we might make on paperwork and ensure our arrests are done properly," said Smith. "It's a different point of view."
Benefits and costs
But having a dedicated prosecutor comes at a cost. In Littleton, the salary for the prosecutor matches that of a veteran patrolman. Departments have to carefully weigh the benefits and costs. Smith said that there were originally five towns, including Littleton, sharing a prosecutor. When the recession hit, two of those towns had to drop out because they needed to cut costs.
Brookline Police Chief Bill Quigley said that he would love to hire an attorney to prosecute cases, but the money just isn't there.
"I did some research and talked to some attorneys about what it would cost to hire them as prosecutors, and I just couldn't afford it," he said. "It would be the equivalent of hiring another officer, but we only have court once a week so I can't justify the expense."
Quigley said that having police officers acting as prosecutors is a balancing act that can jeopardize the quest for justice.
"Because we're a small agency, if I have an officer preparing for trial, he may have to stop what he's doing and focus on a serious crime or an accident," said Quigley. "When that happens, his mind is now off the case. If we have somebody who is dedicated to prosecution, we don't have to worry about that."
Though approved by the Lyndeborough Board of Selectmen, the agreement between Lyndeborough and Wilton will have to be ratified by the Wilton Board of Selectmen and then approved by the Attorney General's Office. Once that process is complete, Deware said Maki can begin prosecuting Lyndeborough's cases.