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Coco is back in jail, but maybe not for long

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 11. 2014 5:55PM
Former Manchester police Sgt. Stephen Coco, right, during his sentencing at Hillsborough County Superior Court North in March. (UNION LEADER FILE)

MANCHESTER — Fired Manchester police officer Stephen Coco is back in jail, but he may not stay there to serve the minimum of his one-year sentence for hit-and-run convictions.

Coco’s sentence on his plea to two felony charges of conduct after an accident, for injuring two Bedford teens and leaving the scene in an undercover police vehicle March 22, 2013, was one year in jail, one year suspended, two years of probation and restitution.

Coco’s attorney, Mark Howard, on Friday said he has filed a motion to block the order sending Coco back to jail, while he files for an expedited appeal of the order at the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Coco was released on June 5, after 72 days in jail, but the time out of jail on day reporting status will count against the minimum eight months Coco must serve on the one-year sentence if he remains of good behavior.

Howard would not say where Coco is now housed, citing safety issues for the former police detective. Before Hillsborough County Jail Supt. David Dionne put Coco on day reporting status, Coco was housed at the Coos County House of Corrections in West Stewartstown.

A message left for Dionne, requesting information on Coco’s current location, was not returned Friday.

Howard disagrees with Hillsborough County Superior Court North Judge Gillian Abramson’s reading of a law that took effect in September 2013, permitting the jail superintendent to reclassify a prisoner in his custody for work release, day reporting or home confinement without seeking a judge’s approval, as was necessary in the past.

Howard argues the new law only permits a judge to overrule the superintendent for an abuse of discretion. Howard said: “The court’s power is limited to ‘did the superintendent act within his own rules and regulations,’”

Earlier this week, Dionne said when it comes to making decisions about classification: “I am firm, fair and consistent.”

While the change in the sentencing law, which took effect in September 2013, permits a decision by the superintendent without a judicial decision, it also gives the prosecutor an opportunity to seek a hearing if he objects to the reclassification.

Sullivan County Prosecutor Marc Hathaway, who was appointed to avoid local conflict of interest, did object to the reclassification and requested a hearing, which was held July 7.

Howard said Hathaway conceded that the reclassification was done correctly. “There’s been no showing of violations,” said Howard.

But Abramson, in her ruling, disagreed with the defense interpretation of the court’s review authority. Citing the language of the law, which speaks of “a release to be conducive to the person’s rehabilitation,” Abramson said rehabilitation is not an issue in Coco’s case.

“Defendant is not in need of rehabilitation,” she wrote. “This is a defendant who requires punishment and deterrence.”

Abramson wrote that “sentencing is an exclusively judicial function,” and thus a review of a superintendent’s decision to release an inmate is “retention of the judiciary’s original power to impose sentences.”

Abramson also wrote: “The Court possesses an inherent power to take actions necessary to ensure the sentences it imposes are appropriately carried out.”

Dionne said earlier this week that superintendents had pushed for the ability to change classification without a hearing, because sometimes it could take months to get a hearing before a judge. They said the delay could jeopardize a prisoner’s job or Social Security benefits and medications.

But as a result of the sentencing law change, reclassified prisoners can be out of jail for an extended period of time before a judge conducts a hearing on a prosecutor’s objection.

Coco was off-duty in a police-owned SUV when he struck teenagers Dean Drukker and Noah Hickman who were walking in their neighborhood the evening of March 22, 2013. Drukker suffered a head injury and has recovered. Hickman suffered a broken elbow and has also recovered. Coco pleaded guilty to two felony charges of conduct after an accident in a negotiated plea.

Coco got out of jail on June 5. He was living at home in Bedford for a month before the hearing July 7 on the prosecutor’s objection to his release.

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