Shopping sting trial: Judge gives defense time to research law
By MARK HAYWARD New Hampshire Union Leader
MANCHESTER - The south Manchester resident arrested in a Christmas-season shopping cart sting brought his case to court Monday, telling a judge he'll never take it upon himself to return a lost item again.
"To be honest, I don't even want to pick up a quarter that's laying on the ground," Alexander Ramasci testified during an afternoon trial in Manchester District Court.
It will be at least three weeks before the judge issues a verdict.
Manchester police arrested Ramasci in early December, after he found a DVD player and a purse in an unattended shopping cart at the T.J. Maxx plaza on South Willow Street, put it in his car trunk and left.
"It was an early Christmas present for him. He just came upon this lost merchandise and wanted to take it home," prosecutor Rose Marie Balboni said in summing up the case.
But Ramasci's lawyer said his client planned to bring the items home, find an identification and track the owner, as his mother did when he found a wallet as a child.
"This is insane that we're setting people up to find things and not even giving them a reasonable amount of time to bring it home," said Joseph Kelly Levasseur.
Ramasci is charged with theft of lost or mislaid property. In a move unusual for a district court, Judge William Lyons gave Balboni and Levasseur 20 days to research the law on two legal issues.
One is what is a reasonable measure to take in returning property to its rightful owner. The other is the concept of legal impossibility. In doing so, Lyons appears to be paying heed to Levasseur's claim that the property wasn't lost because its owner, the Manchester Police Department, knew where it was.
During the trial, Lyons had to rein in Levasseur, who as an alderman has drawn the ire of police for his public references to a 2010 bar fight at the Strange Brew Tavern involving police.
"We're not here to try the police; we're here to try the defendant," Lyons said, after Levasseur questioned whether police knew the details of the law they had charged Ramasci with.
In testimony, police and Ramasci differed on several issues.
Ramasci said there were few available parking spots when he pulled up next to the shopping cart.
He said he didn't rummage through the purse, for fear someone would think he was a thief. He waited around a couple of minutes, then put the items in his trunk.
He went into Game Stop, returned to his car, left, and was pulled over.
He said detectives frisked him and started to accuse him of selling drugs. Detectives never spoke about the purse until they arrested him, he said.
"I was so thrown off guard by them accusing me of selling drugs, it never popped into my head," he said when asked why he didn't tell police about the purse.
In his testimony, Detective Michael Donahue said the parking lot had many available spaces when Ramasci pulled in about 7 p.m. on Dec. 3.
He said the young man pulled up to the shopping cart, rolled down his car window, rummaged through the purse, then pulled forward, parked the car, looked around, stashed the purse and merchandise in his trunk, went into Game Stop, returned to his car and took off.
When pulled over, he never spoke to the uniformed officer about the purse. And when detectives asked Ramasci about "suspicious activity" in the parking lot, Ramasci said he knew nothing. Donahue said he used a ruse about drug activity.
Balboni said Ramasci's many actions - putting the items in the trunk rather than the front seat, not telling people at Game Stop about his find, and not mentioning the purse when police pulled him over - show his guilt.
"A normal person who doesn't intend to steal things has a different reaction," Donahue said.
Lyons said he thinks no New Hampshire court cases have addressed the issue of reasonableness in theft charges, so he urged the lawyers to look to case law in other states. He said New Hampshire law may have some cases that deal with legal impossibility.
Ramasci was told not to show up to his part-time job at the Hooksett state liquor store after his arrest.