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State v. Brawley

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

September 18, 2018


          Argued: June 14, 2018

          Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (John J. Conforti, assistant attorney general, on the brief, and Laura E.B. Lombardi, senior assistant attorney general, orally), for the State.

          John T. Brawley, self-represented, filed no brief.

          American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, of Concord (Gilles R. Bissonnette on the brief), New Hampshire Legal Assistance, of Manchester (Elliott Berry on the brief), and Albert E. Scherr, of Concord, on the brief and orally, as amici curiae.

          DONOVAN, J.

         The State appeals an order of the Superior Court (Schulman, J.) denying a motion for a bench warrant filed by the New Hampshire Division of Administrative Services, Office of Cost Containment (OCC)[1] to secure the appearance of the defendant, John T. Brawley, at a show cause hearing. We reverse and remand.

         The record supports the following facts. The defendant was charged with two criminal offenses in the Circuit Court that were transferred to the Superior Court for a jury trial. Because the defendant was indigent, the trial court appointed a public defender to represent him. At that time, the trial court issued an order, pursuant to RSA 604-A:9 (2001), requiring the defendant to reimburse the OCC for the costs and expenses associated with his public defense and directed him to contact the OCC, within 5 days of the court's order, to verify his mailing address and to make payment arrangements. The jury acquitted the defendant of both charges following the trial.

         The State alleges that the OCC attempted to contact the defendant prior to and following his trial to arrange for his reimbursement of these costs, but to no avail. Consequently, the OCC filed a motion with the trial court alleging that the defendant did not comply with his payment obligations or provide any cause for his non-compliance. The trial court scheduled a show cause hearing for February 2017, but the defendant failed to appear. In response, the trial court issued an arrest warrant for the defendant and set bail at $50. The defendant was subsequently arrested in March 2017 pursuant to the warrant and paid the $50 bail as a condition of his release. When he posted his bond payment, the defendant attested to having the same address he initially provided to the OCC and to the trial court. The bail payment was remitted to the OCC, thereby reducing the defendant's reimbursement obligation.[2]

         Thereafter, the OCC requested a further hearing on its show cause motion alleging that the defendant made no other payments toward his obligation. The trial court scheduled a second show cause hearing for June 2017, but the defendant, again, failed to appear. In response, the OCC requested that the trial court issue a warrant for the defendant's arrest and set bail in the full amount of his reimbursement obligation, which would then be forfeited to the OCC. Alternatively, the OCC requested that the defendant be jailed for three days before being permitted a bail hearing.

         On this occasion, the trial court denied the OCC's motion, concluding that, in light of his acquittal, the defendant was "unconditionally discharged" from the criminal case. The court then reasoned that it lacked jurisdiction over the defendant to enforce its repayment order or require the defendant to show cause why he cannot, or should not, be required to reimburse the OCC for the costs associated with his public defense. The trial court further found that the defendant's reimbursement obligation constitutes a civil debt and that the OCC was, in effect, a civil judgment creditor required to pursue its collection efforts by initiating a separate civil collection action. This appeal followed.

         A trial court's jurisdictional determination is subject to de novo review. See Univ. Sys. of N.H. Bd. of Trs. v. Dorfsman, 168 N.H. 450, 453 (2015). Similarly, the trial court's finding that RSA 604-A:9 does not apply to an acquitted defendant involves a question of statutory interpretation that is also subject to de novo review. State v. Maxfield, 167 N.H. 677, 679 (2015). "In matters of statutory interpretation, we are the final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole." Id. (quotation omitted). "We first look to the language of the statute itself, and, if possible, construe that language according to its plain and ordinary meaning." Id. (quotation omitted). "We interpret legislative intent from the statute as written and will not consider what the legislature might have said or add language that the legislature did not see fit to include." Id. (quotation omitted). "We construe all parts of a statute together to effectuate its overall purpose and avoid an absurd or unjust result." Id. (quotation omitted). "Moreover, we do not consider words and phrases in isolation, but rather within the context of the statute as a whole." Id. (quotation omitted). "This enables us to better discern the legislature's intent and to interpret statutory language in light of the policy or purpose sought to be advanced by the statutory scheme." Id. (quotation omitted).

         The State argues that the trial court erred in ruling that RSA 604-A:9 does not confer continuing jurisdiction over an acquitted defendant for the purpose of enforcing repayment orders or otherwise collecting the costs associated with the defendant's public defense. The State further disputes the trial court's ruling that, because the notice provisions set forth in RSA 604-A:9, I-c do not apply to an acquitted defendant, the defendant's repayment obligation constitutes a "purely civil debt," requiring the OCC to initiate a separate civil action to secure repayment. We agree with the State.

         The State is constitutionally and statutorily obligated to provide indigent criminal defendants with the option of court-appointed legal counsel in cases where a defendant's liberty is at risk. See RSA 604-A:2, I (Supp. 2017); N.H. CONST. pt. I, art. 15. RSA chapter 604-A provides a comprehensive framework and set of procedures by which the State first provides legal representation to indigent defendants in criminal cases "as a precondition to imprisonment," RSA 604-A:1 (Supp. 2017), and then seeks repayment from the defendant for the State's costs and expenses of that representation. See RSA 604-A:9. Pursuant to RSA 604-A:9, I, individuals who are provided with a public defense are ordered by the court to repay the State the fees and expenses associated with the legal defense in accordance with established guidelines that determine the individual's financial ability to meet his or her obligation. The statute further provides, in relevant part, that:

The court shall enter a separate order . . . setting forth the terms of repayment of fees and expenses to the state, or if the court finds that the defendant is financially unable to make such payment or payments setting forth the reasons therefor. . . . If the court does not order full payment for representation under RSA 604-A, the commissioner of administrative services or his designee shall perform an investigation to determine the defendant's present financial condition and his ability to make ...

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