By Damien Fisher
Granite State News Collaborative
As New Hampshire leaders train their focus on social justice amid statewide protests calling for reform, the state’s Civil Rights Unit in the Department of Justice continues to bring few civil rights cases to court.
The Civil Rights Unit, currently staffed by one full-time attorney, has brought a total of five cases to litigation since it began in December 2017. Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, the current head of the unit, said that breaks down to one case in 2017, two in 2018, two in 2019, and none yet in 2020.
The number of cases brought to court don’t show the full picture, however. Locke said that in 2018 the unit dealt with 40 complaints, resulting in 19 formal reviews being opened. The reviews involve speaking to witnesses, reviewing reports and conducting investigations.
In 2019, the unit received between 75 and 76 complaints, opening 19 reviews. In 2020, the unit has so far received 66 complaints and opened six reviews. The unit typically focuses on civil rights violations like the case of Priscilla Protasowicki, the Jackson innkeeper accused of trying to physically remove two Muslim guests from her Covered Bridge Riverview Lodge. Protasowicki ended up with a fine of $10,000 after Elizabeth Lahey, who held the position before Locke, brought her to court.
“Last year we might have filed two matters in court, but the other cases were all being investigated and reviewed at the same time,” Locke said. “The work of the unit doesn’t stop when we go to court.”
Locke said he is the first full-time permanent staffer assigned to work the Civil Rights Unit, a function of a budget change made in the past six months. Locke’s position is budgeted at a little more than $100,000 a year, according to the 2020-2021 state budget. The change makes the position a permanent, full-time job as opposed to a temporary, full-time job as it was when Lahey led the unit. According to budget records, such a switch was always planned for the position. Aside from Locke and his assistant, the unit is able to pull in staff and resources from other units within the Department of Justice as needed.
The unit was created as the state was reacting to high-profile cases involving alleged civil rights abuses. This includes the case of a biracial Claremont boy who allegedly had a noose tied around his neck by older white children. That case caused national outrage and moved Gov. Chris Sununu to create the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and the Civil Rights Unit.
The investigation into the Claremont case resulted in the Attorney General’s Office finding no hate crime was committed, according to a report released last year.
From the start, the Civil Rights Unit was staffed by Lahey. Lahey said that she worked full-time in the Civil Rights Unit, but she also had other work in the Department of Justice.
“It was a full-time job,” Lahey said. “I had extra responsibilities on top of it.”
Lahey declined to answer if she thought the unit was assigned enough resources. She has since moved to private practice.
Locke said the Civil Rights Unit is tasked with enforcing two sets of laws, RSA 354 A, the New Hampshire Law Against Discrimination, and RSA 354 B, the New Hampshire Civil Rights Act.
Along with investigating complaints of actual or threatened physical violence, property damage, and property trespass that was motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, the unit will investigate discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation based on age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, color, marital status, familial status, physical or mental disability, religion, or national origin.
Manchester defense lawyer Donna Brown, a member of the New Hampshire Association Of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she has not had a lot of interaction with the Civil Rights Unit, but is hesitant about its connection to law enforcement.
“The fact they’re associated with the AG’s office gives me concern,” Brown said.
Brown said she has many clients who could make civil rights complaints against police and other agencies. But they likely would not want to report these complaints to the attorney general because the office is seen as a branch of law enforcement.
Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast NAACP and chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, sees the unit as a responsive part of the state’s civil rights infrastructure. The low number of cases brought by the Civil Rights Unit is a function of there not being many civil rights cases in New Hampshire that would qualify.
“Show me the case and I guarantee they’ll be on it because they’re dedicated,” Johnson said. “In terms of civil rights cases, there isn’t a whole lot.”
Johnson and Locke both said many cases are referred to the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission, which deals with complaints of housing and employments discrimination, as well as complaints of sexual harassment, and discrimination by sex, marriage and race.
According to data published by the Human Rights Commission, that organization received 232 complaints in 2017, and found probable cause of discrimination in 21 cases. The Human Rights Commission reports 323 cases in 2018, with probable cause of discrimination in 19 cases.
“Our role isn’t to replace what they do,” Locke said. “Our role is to augment them and work collaboratively with them in enforcing the law.”
The Human Rights Commission focuses on civil rights violations like housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and issues related to public accommodations and access to education. The commission has investigators look into complaints, and at the same time encourages the parties to resolve matters through a settlement or mediation. If the matter cannot be settled, the investigator will issue a report and if probable cause is found, the case moves to a public hearing before the commission. The commission will then hear evidence and render a decision.
Locke said the commission can send cases to the Civil Rights Unit if the investigators believe it belongs with the Department of Justice, and the Unit can send complaints it receives to the commission, depending on the nature of the complaint.
The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Unit also trains and educates members of law enforcement agencies on how to investigate possible hate crimes, and has developed a set of protocols for such investigations. Locke said the training and protocols have started becoming part of the New Hampshire State Police Academy training for new officers.
“These protocols have gotten attention from AG’s offices around the country,” he said.
Locke said he will also work with other state agencies to go over the civil rights laws to make sure the agencies can recognize possible discrimination and deal with it in an appropriate manner.
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