Judge says State Police should release records on fired trooper
A judge has ordered New Hampshire State Police to release personnel records about a former state trooper fired for misconduct, holding that the public has a “substantial” interest in knowing more about his actions and how the agency investigated him.
The former trooper, Haden Wilber, was fired last year for illegally searching phones, being untruthful during an internal investigation and making various investigatory missteps during a 2017 case that prompted a lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire filed a right-to-know lawsuit in January seeking records about State Police’s investigation and termination of Wilber. The agency has declined to disclose those records, citing personnel privacy reasons.
In an order dated May 3 and released Wednesday, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge John Kissinger Jr. ruled in favor of the ACLU.
“Disclosure of Mr. Wilber’s personnel file will assist the public in determining whether the investigation into his conduct was comprehensive and accurate,” Kissinger wrote, adding that the records could also “assist the public in scrutinizing the State Police’s effectiveness in supervising its employees.”
The New Hampshire Attorney’s General’s Office said it was reviewing the order and would decide how to proceed within the timeframe set out by court rules. A spokesperson for State Police declined to comment.
“Today’s decision is a victory for transparency and accountability,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU-NH’s legal director. “ … Fortunately, in this historic moment of conversation about police accountability nationally and here in New Hampshire, the Court rejected the State Police’s position of secrecy and agreed that this information was in the public interest and should be released.”
Wilber was a member of State Police’s Mobile Enforcement Team, a drug-interdiction unit that the ACLU has criticized for its use of traffic violations as pretexts to stop and investigate unrelated suspicions about drivers.
It was one such stop in February 2017 that led to Wilber’s eventual termination.
After finding a small amount of heroin residue in a vehicle he stopped on Interstate 95 in Portsmouth, Wilber arrested the driver — Robyn White of Avon, Maine — for possession. He told staff at the Rockingham County jail that he thought she had drugs hidden on her person, though she denied it.
When a strip search found nothing, Wilber suspected White could still have drugs in a body cavity. She was transported to another jail for a body scan.
Wilber wrote in a report that an unnamed corrections officer told him the scan showed two “unidentified packages” in White’s intestinal region. Booking notes about the scan from the Rockingham County jail, however, say “no foreign objects detected,” and White’s defense attorney later said jail staff told her the scan results were ambiguous.
Wilber charged White with an additional offense alleging she had brought contraband into the jail. As a result, her bail was raised to $5,000 and she spent 13 days in jail. No drugs were found during that time.
White was required to undergo a second body scan before her release. Again citing an unnamed jail employee’s interpretation of the results, Wilber obtained a search warrant for a doctor to perform an invasive body-cavity search.
Nothing illegal was found, and the contraband charge was dropped.
White sued in late 2019, alleging Wilber had violated her civil rights during the stop and subsequent investigation. The state paid $212,500 to settle.
The lawsuit also prompted State Police to open an investigation, which documented multiple deficiencies in Wilber’s handling of the case and concluded he made false statements to an internal affairs investigator.
Wilber later admitted to reading a text message on White’s phone without a warrant, an illegal search under the 4th Amendment. He said he had done so on several prior occasions.
“This investigation has revealed disturbing facts regarding your investigatory habits and overall integrity as a law enforcement officer,” Col. Nathan Noyes, the director of State Police, wrote in an Aug. 9, 2021 letter terminating Wilber.
Wilber has admitted to most of the allegations but denied lying. He is appealing his termination.
In response to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office argued police personnel files are categorically exempt from disclosure under the state’s public-records law. Even if they weren’t, the state argued, the records in this case should be withheld to protect employees’ privacy and the integrity of internal investigations.
Kissinger disagreed on both counts, noting the “overriding public interest in records documenting alleged serious misconduct by police officers.”
In addition to documenting Wilber’s actions in the White case, the requested records could shed light on whether his personnel file contains other instances of misconduct and how State Police supervised him before the 2017 stop and his eventual termination in 2021.
“The public also has an interest in understanding and scrutinizing the timeliness of the government’s investigation,” Kissinger wrote.
His order notes that the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office determined in 2017 that Wilber had illegally expanded the scope of the White traffic stop without reasonable suspicion, and cites an email a State Police sergeant sent a prosecutor around the same time calling the case “complete horseshit” and saying “he and his supervisor don’t want to hear that they’re doing anything wrong.”
The email was first reported by the Granite State News Collaborative, which obtained it through a public-records request.
Kissinger’s order directs State Police to provide the requested documents to the ACLU with limited redactions to protect personal and medical information.
This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative, as part of its race and equity initiative. It was edited by The Concord Monitor, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.