Kenyon: Common sense could yet prevail in Dartmouth trespassing cases

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 06-14-2024 8:01 PM

Modified: 06-18-2024 1:26 PM


In a way, I feel sorry for Hanover police prosecutor Mariana Pastore. Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock has put her in a tough spot.

The day is fast approaching when Pastore must declare whether she’s moving forward with criminal charges against 87 people, including 63 Dartmouth students, who were arrested during last month’s peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration on the college Green.

With the first round of arraignments set for July 15 in Lebanon District Court, Pastore needs to start filing complaints on or before July 1.

Pastore is stuck handling nearly 100 cases of alleged criminal trespass only because Beilock invited police onto campus on the night of May 1 to carry out her Operation Zero Tolerance.

Police in riot gear were enlisted to bust up a demonstration that drew several hundred people and make sure a small tent encampment on the Green didn’t gain a foothold.

Dartmouth’s spinmeisters want the public to believe that Beilock has no control over what happens next. But hang around courthouses long enough and you’ll see how the sausage is made.

As the “victim,” Dartmouth only has to get word to Pastore that it’s not interested in pursuing criminal charges. Prosecutors like to pretend they’re the sole deciders in who ends up in court. But if a victim is unwilling to cooperate — other than domestic violence cases — prosecutors are likely to back off.

Particularly when the victim is an Ivy League college with deep pockets (I know that’s redundant) in a small town. While time is short, there’s still a chance that common sense could prevail.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Former Listen director faces sentencing for embezzlement
Police investigating shooting of man found in Grafton
Claremont man transported to hospital for mental health evaluation after city hall lockdown
New Hampshire has no locally owned casinos in operation, state eyes new regulations
Bike lanes change traffic patterns on Route 5 in Hartford
Route 14 railroad underpass reopens in Royalton

It would require Pastore to reduce the potential charge against each of the 87 defendants from a misdemeanor to a violation. In other words, treat the alleged offense like a speeding ticket. Defendants would agree to pay a fine without running the risk of getting saddled with criminal records.

“While the decision is ultimately up to the prosecutor, Dartmouth is working hard to ensure the consideration of a full range of options for all arrested Dartmouth community members, including options that will ensure there is no charge on their record,” Jana Barnello, a college spokesman, told me Friday.

“We are also working to support students in every way we can, including offering access to a fund for assistance with legal fees,” she added.

Dartmouth is playing it both ways. The college likes having police at its beck and call when students don’t do as they’re told. But Dartmouth also wants to give the impression that it’s looking out for the very students it had cops haul off in handcuffs last month.

If the college is serious about supporting students “every way” it can, Beilock should state publicly the cases need to be dropped. It would also be nice to hear her acknowledge that what took place on the Green was a nonviolent act of civil disobedience that shouldn’t have become a police matter.

Pastore probably disagrees with the latter. Still she’s earned a reputation around the Lebanon courthouse as a prosecutor who treats defendants fairly. It wouldn’t be out of character for her to go the violation route. ( Pastore told me this week that she can’t comment on pending cases.)

Despite what Beilock’s PR machine is churning out, I’m not sure the first-year president is eager to see defendants walk away with a slap on the wrist. As she’s lectured, “actions have consequences.”

Beilock needs her actions on May 1 to serve as a deterrent. What better way to stop other students from joining a campus protest or pitching a tent than to threaten them with arrest.

For Beilock to remain in the good graces of wealthy donors and the college’s board of trustees, she can’t have student activists making Dartmouth look bad in the national media.

But even if the 87 cases stemming from the May 1 demonstration are made to go away, there’s still the unresolved matter of two Dartmouth students who were arrested in October. Pro-Palestinian activists Kevin Engel and Roan Wade were taken into police custody for refusing to leave a tent they’d occupied for about six hours on the lawn outside Beilock’s office. They’ve pleaded not guilty.

At a motions hearing on May 20, Lebanon District Court Judge Michael Mace pointed to a 2021 New Hampshire Supreme Court decision in a case that also involved Dartmouth.

In 2016, two students set up a charcoal grill — a no-no under college policy — outside a fourth floor window in Morton Hall. The grill started a fire that led to the dorm sustaining major damage. After paying out $4.5 million to Dartmouth, the insurer tried to recover its losses by going after the students.

The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the students couldn’t be held liable for damages to the entire dorm. In other circumstances, “courts have found the relationship between a college and its residential students sufficiently similar to that of landlord and tenant,” justices said.

In his written order following last month’s hearing, Mace “encouraged the parties to meet and confer regarding the potential implications” of the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision. Kira Kelley, who is representing the two students, declined to comment on Friday.

Reading between the lines, I’d say Mace is signaling that he has serious doubts about whether any laws are broken when two students sit peacefully for a short time in a tent on their own campus.

Dartmouth, as it did with the two students involved in the grill fire, might be able to discipline Engel and Wade for violating its no-tents-without-a-permit policy. But calling in Hanover cops to perform its dirty work?

Having students arrested for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly is unacceptable.

It’s a scare tactic that Dartmouth shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.