‘Not a close case’

NH Personnel Appeals Board upholds trooper firing
Wilber In April

Former State Trooper Haden Wilber testifying before the state Personnel Appeals Board in April. (Photo by Paul Cuno-Booth)

A state panel on Wednesday upheld the termination of a former New Hampshire state trooper who officials say illegally searched a woman’s phone, misled internal investigators and violated other departmental policies in connection with a 2017 vehicle-stop case.

State Police fired Trooper Haden Wilber last August after an internal investigation prompted by a civil-rights lawsuit. Wilber then challenged his firing before the New Hampshire Personnel Appeals Board, whose members are appointed by the governor and include attorneys and labor-relations or personnel professionals.

In brief deliberations Wednesday that followed a two-day hearing in April, all four board members said the agency was justified in firing him. In particular, they condemned Wilber’s warrantless phone search, calling it a clear Fourth Amendment violation.

Jason Major, the board’s chair, said it was “not a close case.”

“He made quite a few admissions, frankly, both in his testimony before the board and in text messages at the time, which suggested that he was aware that he was violating people’s constitutional rights,” Major said.

Marc Beaudoin, Wilber’s attorney, said he was “disappointed” by the board’s decision and there were “circumstances here that should have been taken into consideration.” He did not immediately know whether Wilber planned to appeal.

Representatives for the Department of Safety declined to comment.

Wilber was a member of State Police’s Mobile Enforcement Team, a drug-interdiction unit the ACLU of New Hampshire and other civil-liberties advocates have criticized for using minor motor-vehicle stops as pretexts to investigate unrelated hunches.

One such stop in February 2017 would lead to Wilber’s firing. After arresting a Maine woman, Robyn White, for heroin possession during a vehicle stop on Interstate 95 in Portsmouth, Wilber alleged she had more drugs hidden on her person and charged her with an additional offense.

No drugs were found during the 13 days White spent in custody, or during the invasive vaginal and rectal search she was forced to undergo before her release.

Prosecutors also determined Wilber had illegally expanded the scope of the traffic stop, making any evidence he found in her car inadmissible in court. All charges against White were eventually dropped.

The state paid $212,500 last fall to settle a civil rights lawsuit she brought.

Testifying before the Personnel Appeals Board in April, Sgt. Justin Rowe, who led the internal investigation, said Wilber’s handling of the White case did not meet State Police standards.

“The totality of his performance in this singular case, I feel like he didn’t take the proper investigative tactics with this. I think he overstretched and failed to properly document his actions in this case,” Rowe said. “He slowly made decisions along the way in this case that clearly affected the ultimate outcome.”

The investigation also showed that Wilber had read a text message on White’s phone without a warrant — a clear Fourth Amendment violation that Rowe discovered only because Wilber had texted a law-enforcement contact about it. Wilber admitted to conducting warrantless phone searches on other occasions as well.

Wilber later checked White’s phone out of evidence and failed to document where it ended up. State Police say the phone was never found.

Rowe also concluded that Wilber made false statements during their interviews, changing his answers when confronted with documentary evidence.

Wilber described those inconsistencies to memory lapses, noting the case had occurred four years earlier. But he admitted to the other allegations, including the illegal phone search.

Beaudoin has said his client’s mistakes in the White case stemmed from poor supervision and a frenetic workload. At the April hearing, he argued Wilber was being punished for broader issues with how the Mobile Enforcement Team operated at the time.

But members of the Personnel Appeals Board said Wilber had clearly stepped over the line.

Vice Chair Norman Patenaude said he was most troubled by “the warrantless search and the expansion of the scope of a simple traffic stop into something that should have never, ever happened.”

Such constitutional violations reflect poorly on the law enforcement profession, Patenaude said. “We expect them to follow the laws.”

This article is being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more, visit collaborativenh.org.

Categories: Government, Law, News