If a state trooper doesn’t tell the truth about why he lost his hat, can he be trusted when he faces a heavier moral choice? North Carolina’s highest court was mulling this question on Tuesday.
Thomas Wetherington, who is challenging his dismissal, initially told his supervisor the hat blew off of his head and was probably crushed by a passing 18-wheel truck. He testified that he suddenly realized days later that he had left the hat on the light bar of his patrol car, but he didn’t tell his bosses what really happened.
The hat was returned a few weeks later in good condition by one of the people Wetherington had pulled over that day. The two-year member of the force said that after he realized his mistake, he stuck to his first explanation because he had been reprimanded before for forgetting to wear his hat.
“Wetherington did not voluntarily correct his lie even when the opportunity to confess and accept responsibility for losing the hat presented itself,” state attorneys wrote.
“The people have statutorily vested law enforcement officers with the power to invade their homes, restrain their freedom and even take their lives based solely on their judgment. In return, the public has a right to expect that officers authorized to exercise such extraordinary powers will be scrupulously honest in all their official duties,” they wrote.
The Highway Patrol’s truthfulness policy says no patrol member “shall willfully report any inaccurate, false, improper or misleading information,” and an administrative law judge and a majority on the state personnel commission upheld the firing. But appellate judges reversed them, saying the firing lacked just cause.
Col. Randy Glover, then the state patrol’s commander, fired Wetherington after learning that termination had been the fate of every trooper found to have violated the truthfulness policy since at least 2002, state attorneys said.
But Wetherington’s attorneys cited dozens of examples of troopers receiving lesser punishment for more serious lies and crimes, which shows that “the patrol’s record is neither inspiring or at all indicative that truthfulness is paramount.”
“Some of those are episodes of extreme misconduct including but not limited to criminal conduct and serious untruthfulness that was condoned, and either not charged or punished by trivial discipline and not termination,” attorney Michael McGuinness wrote.
Wetherington’s firing also came at a time when other troopers faced sexual misconduct accusations. In 2010, Gov. Beverly Perdue said she would make every state trooper sign a code of conduct and those that break the rules would be fired.
The state Court of Appeals rejected arguments that if Wetherington remained a trooper, his lie about the hat would have to be disclosed to defendants whenever he testifies. The state offered no proof the disclosure would be required, and a trooper is rarely the sole witness in a case, the appeals court said.
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