Friday, August 1, 2014

Not so fast, New Hampshire!

In re LaPlante, 2014 VT 79

By Andrew Delaney

New Hampshire is often called Vermont’s sister state. I understand that sisters sometimes fight over gentlemen callers. Sometimes my analogies need a little work. I was going to crack wise about petitioner being caught in some kind of two-state love triangle, but that might not work here ‘cause they’re kind of working together against petitioner. Anywho . . . .

Mr. LaPlante allegedly failed to appear at some 2009 hearing related to restitution and a deferred sentence in New Hampshire. The details aren’t entirely clear, and I think that’s the problem in a nutshell. All this goes back to a 1998 conviction that by all appearances lay dormant for nearly ten years. But, when petitioner didn’t show for his 2009 hearing, the New Hampshire court issued a capias (vocabulary lesson for the day: a capias is “[a]ny of various types of writs that require an officer to take a named defendant into custody”) and set bail. 
Mr. LaPlante—and we’ll soon find out why he’s “petitioner” in this case—got arrested in Vermont in 2012. The State of Vermont tried to send him to New Hampshire with a civil fugitive-from-justice petition. The Bennington civil division politely declined as the warrant was facially invalid. Petitioner was arrested several months later, and Vermont again filed a fugitive-from-justice petition, but this time in Rutland County. A few months later, the New Hampshire Governor requested extradition and Vermont’s Governor issued a Governor’s warrant.

Rutland gave New Hampshire ten days to come get petitioner and held him without bail for that time. But petitioner filed a request for habeas corpus relief arguing that the Governor’s warrant was no good. After a hearing, the superior court granted the petition, finding that it failed to meet the essential elements for extradition.

The State appeals, arguing that the warrant was all good and the trial court was wrong.

The SCOV begins with a pretty heady constitutional principle: “The U.S. Constitution ‘places certain limits on the sovereign powers of the States, limits that are an essential part of the Framers’ conception of national identity and Union.’” There’s an Extradition Clause in the U.S. Constitution. Thus, it’s generally a formality—mandatory and summary with no discretion to the courts when the requirements are met.

All the courts get to do, really, is look at the papers to make sure they’re in order. If the right boxes are checked, it’s a done deal. Here in Vermont, there’s a statutory scheme based on the Uniform Criminal Extradition Act, which covers extraditions; there’s a statute that deals with Governor’s warrants particularly.

What’s required? Well, among other things an extradition request must be accompanied by “a copy of the indictment, or an information supported by affidavit, or an affidavit made before a magistrate.” In this situation, where there’s a claim that a person escaped from confinement or broke the terms of probation or parole, then the documentation has to establish: “(1) the person sought was convicted of a crime; (2) a period of probation or parole was imposed; (3) the person has broken the terms of his or her probation or parole; and (4) the sentence had not expired at the time of the alleged violation.”

Here, the SCOV concludes, “On their face, the documents contained in the Governor’s warrant establish only the first of these requirements.” Though the documentation establishes that petitioner was convicted back in ’98, the sentence and its terms aren’t clear at all, and the SCOV isn’t about to play the Sherlock Holmes of the appellate world. The State makes some arguments, but none get very far. There’s a ten-year unexplained gap between the conviction and the alleged violation.

The SCOV goes on to note that there’s no evidence that the sentence (circa 2008) hadn’t expired. Even assuming the various sentences mentioned in the return—six, four, and three months—were all consecutive, they would’ve all expired in August 2009, thirteen months after the sentence was “imposed.” Now, even though I went to law school, not math school, that checks out with me. The SCOV mentions that when all that’s established is an expired sentence, that doesn’t cut the mustard.

Finally, the SCOV notes that the act complained of—not showing up for a hearing on a deferred sentence—without more, may not even be extraditable.

All this, the SCOV reasons, is enough for “this Court to conclude that, on the whole, the documentation included in the Governor’s warrant is altogether too vague and inconclusive where the statute demands clarity.”

The documentation on its face simply doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. The SCOV reasons that this isn’t a case where the documentation is in a different form but functionally equivalent; this is a case “where the documents leave open what must, by law, be established.” Thus the SCOV affirms the trial court. 

The SCOV is clear that its decision is based solely on the adequacy of the documentation—a gentle warning, perhaps, to defense practitioners dealing with extradition claims.  Don't get your hopes up, kids.

But as it shakes out, this is a situation where the government has to actually have its papers in order.

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