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State v. Vincelette

Supreme Court of New Hampshire, Grafton

July 9, 2019

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
DAVID VINCELETTE

          Argued: May 8, 2019

          Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Susan P. McGinnis, senior assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State.

          Eric S. Wolpin, assistant appellate defender, of Concord, on the brief, and Anthony Naro, public defender, orally, for the defendant.

          BASSETT, J.

         The defendant, David Vincelette, appeals a decision of the Superior Court (Bornstein, J.)[1] finding that he committed criminal contempt by violating a January 2016 trial court order that prohibited him from interfering with the Town of Hanover's efforts to remove debris from a right of way and Town-owned nature preserve. The defendant argues that "[t]he court erred by finding that the State presented sufficient evidence that [he] intentionally violated the court's order." We affirm.

         The pertinent facts are as follows. The Town-owned nature preserve is accessed by a deeded right of way that crosses land where the defendant resides. In May 2015, the trial court found that the defendant had "placed numerous objects," including wood pallets, abandoned vehicles, boats, and appliances on the nature preserve and on the right of way such that the right of way was "narrow[ed] . . . to such a width that it is difficult for a vehicle to access the [T]own's property." The trial court ordered the defendant to remove the debris by June 1, 2015.

         In September 2015, the trial court found the defendant in civil contempt of court for violating the May order, and again ordered him to remove the debris from the right of way and nature preserve. In October 2015, when the defendant had failed to comply with the September order, the trial court found the defendant in civil contempt for a second time. The trial court ordered him "to immediately cease interfering with the [Town's] exercise of its rights to remove the defendant's materials from the right of way and the [Town's] property," and provided that "[t]he [Town] may resume removing the defendant's debris."

         In November 2015, the defendant parked his pickup truck across the right of way, which blocked the Town's access to the right of way and the nature preserve. The Town filed a third motion for contempt and the court held a hearing in January 2016. After the hearing, the trial court issued yet another order in which it concluded that the defendant's November 2015 conduct "was in violation of the October 29, 2015 order." Although the court declined to find the defendant in contempt because the defendant had moved his truck after 10-15 minutes, it ordered the defendant "to immediately cease interfering with the [Town's] exercise of its rights to remove the defendant's [debris] from the right of way and the [Town's] property."

         In May 2016, employees of the Hanover Department of Public Works, accompanied by members of the Grafton County Sheriff's Department, went to the right of way with heavy equipment intending to remove the debris from the right of way and the nature preserve. When they entered the right of way, they encountered the defendant and a confrontation ensued, much of which was recorded by the police in a forty-five minute video. Lieutenant Kelly, from the Sheriff's Department, gave the defendant a copy of the January 2016 court order and read portions of it aloud. The defendant responded that the Town could not use vehicles to remove the debris. He asserted that, although the deed creating the right of way allowed him to drive his personal vehicle on the right of way, the Town was allowed to drive vehicles on the right of way solely for maintenance or emergencies. The defendant stood in close proximity to the Town employees while yelling and swearing at them, told them that they would be held liable for engaging in illegal activity, declared that they could not use vehicles to remove the debris, and repeatedly ordered them to leave. For approximately five minutes, the defendant sat on, or stood near, the wood pallets that the trial court had previously decreed the Town had a right to remove. He also made repeated physical contact with a Town employee, after which Kelly positioned himself between the defendant and the employee. At one point the defendant approached a moving dump truck while shouting, "no, no, no, no trucks down here . . . hey stop." On multiple occasions, the defendant's close proximity to the Town's vehicles caused the Town employees to stop working. The Town employees and law enforcement officers ultimately decided to leave after the defendant repeatedly said that he was not going to allow them to remove the debris.

         In September 2016, after the Town had filed another motion for contempt, the trial court held another hearing. The trial court found the defendant in civil contempt of court for a third time, and referred the case to the Grafton County Attorney's Office. The defendant was charged with criminal contempt for violating the January 2016 order. The State alleged that, on May 16, 2016, the defendant committed six acts which interfered with the Town's removal of the defendant's debris from the right of way and the nature preserve. Five acts involved the defendant's statements and one involved the defendant's physical acts. The State alleged that the defendant physically interfered with the Town's actions by "[c]reating a dangerous situation by walking up to and/or behind and/or in between the heavy machinery brought by Town of Hanover employees."

         The trial court conducted a two-day bench trial that concluded in December 2017. The Operations Manager for the Town of Hanover Department of Public Works testified that the defendant, in response to the Town's attempts to remove the debris, was "very aggressive," moved within five feet of the heavy equipment, and made the situation "unstable" and "not . . . safe." Kelly testified that the defendant had yelled and cursed, and "walk[ed] in between the heavy equipment" which "stopped what was going on because [Town employees] were concerned about the safety risk of him, not knowing where he is and how he was acting." Kelly also testified that the defendant's "attitude and his mannerisms were escalating; they weren't de-escalating, they were escalating. And we made a decision where it was the safety of everybody to withdraw from the area and come back at another day." The defendant introduced into evidence the forty-five minute police video of his interactions with Town employees and law enforcement.

         In January 2018, the trial court issued an order concluding that "[t]he evidence established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally committed each of the charged acts in violation of the Order and that he acted purposely." The trial court found the defendant guilty of criminal contempt, noting that it "was able to observe the defendant's conduct, speech, tone of voice, manner, and demeanor" from the video. The trial court also concluded that none of the charged conduct was protected speech under either the Federal or State Constitutions. The trial court imposed a four-month sentence. It suspended, for two years, all but the eight days that the defendant had already served, on the condition that he remain of good behavior and continue treatment through the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs. The trial court denied the defendant's motion to reconsider, and this appeal followed.

         On appeal, the defendant argues that the State introduced insufficient evidence to prove that, on May 16, 2016, he violated the January 2016 order, and that he acted with the requisite intent. A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence raises a claim of legal error; therefore, our standard of review is de novo. State v. Morrill, 169 N.H. 709, 718 (2017). To prevail upon a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, the defendant must prove that no rational trier of fact, viewing all of the evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in the light most favorable to the State, could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

         A defendant's intent often must be proved by circumstantial evidence and may be inferred from the defendant's conduct under all the circumstances. State v. Zubhuza, 166 N.H. 125, 130 (2014). When the evidence as to an element of proof is solely circumstantial, it must exclude all reasonable conclusions except guilt. See Morrill, 169 N.H. at 718-19. However, the proper analysis is not whether every possible conclusion consistent with innocence has been excluded, but, rather, whether all reasonable conclusions based upon the evidence have been excluded. State v. Germain, 165 N.H. 350, 361 (2013), modified on other grounds by State v. King, 168 N.H. 340, 345 (2015). We do not review each circumstance proved in isolation or break the evidence into discrete pieces in an effort to establish that, when viewed in isolation, these evidentiary fragments ...


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