State's case against Butner law officers falls apart

cjarvis@newsobserver.comOctober 23, 2013 

Late one night, a Butner Public Safety officer pulled over a suspected drunken driver who turned out to be a captain in the State Highway Patrol, and took him to a hotel instead of jail.

When word leaked out, the repercussions were swift: Four law enforcement officers were fired within months.

But 3-1/2 years later, the case against the officers has crumbled. All but one of them have won court battles challenging their dismissals, as judges found there was insufficient evidence that the patrol captain was drunk, or that the Butner officers gave him special treatment or tried to cover it up.

Highway Patrol Capt. James Williams Jr. is the latest to be re-instated. He rejoined the patrol at the same rank last month, about a week after he settled with the state. He is now assigned to its professional standards division. The state will pay him $37,500 in back pay; he has to pay his own attorney’s fees, according to the settlement.

Attorneys for the fired officers say the case has been devastating, tarnishing their reputations and forcing them into years of litigation. Raleigh attorney Michael C. Byrne, who represented one of the Butner officers, says his client was railroaded in a politically motivated purge while the Perdue administration did damage control.

At the time, then-Gov. Bev Perdue, reacting to this and a spate of other episodes of trooper misconduct, assured the public there would be “zero tolerance” for unethical or illegal behavior in the ranks.

“These people ruined his career over a false allegation when they, honestly, should have known better,” Byrne said Wednesday. “They should have given an experienced, ethical law enforcement officer at least the benefit of the doubt, with an eye toward finding the facts.”

Byrne’s client, former Butner Capt. Bruce Williams, who was 45 days from retirement eligibility when he was fired, won his job back but chose to retire. After several years without a job, he now works for the Granville Sheriff’s Department. After a settlement in February, he is collecting more than $100,000 in back pay, Byrne said. The state will also pay him $14,000 in attorney’s fees, according to the settlement.

Butner’s Maj. Anthony Moss also won his case and back pay in June; he can petition to receive attorney’s fees. He was transferred to the State Capitol Police, where he is now the assistant chief.

Only former Butner Lt. Daniel Parrott lost his case, in a ruling last year, and on grounds that he lied about some of the events of that night and failed to perform a field sobriety test.

Department of Public Safety Communications Director Pamela Walker said Wednesday that the department is entitled to defend its personnel decisions in court.

“I cannot speak for the former administration, but DPS stands by its right to take what it believes are appropriate personnel actions,” Walker said. “The employee also has a right to disagree, and in some cases, it is up to the courts to decide. DPS respects those decisions.”

Conflicting stories

It all started with a weaving Mustang convertible on the night of April 3, 2010.

Parrott was on patrol that night and had his wife as a passenger as an approved ride-along, although she was with him for 7-1/2 hours and was only permitted to ride for four. Parrott later lied to an internal affairs investigator by saying he was alone during the traffic stop; he also falsely said he didn’t know how to do a field sobriety test, records show. Those were the grounds for his firing.

At 1:48 a.m., Parrott radioed that he was about to stop an extremely impaired driver in an older model Mustang. About a minute later, Parrott radioed Capt. Bruce Williams that he needed a supervisor as soon as possible. Parrott also called the captain on his cellphone.

Williams responded that he was on the way. About six minutes later, Williams called the dispatcher and told him to call Moss at home and tell him an SHP captain had been pulled over and was extremely impaired, and to call him back, radio and phone records introduced in the case show. Williams testified he hadn’t yet arrived at the scene when he made that call.

Shortly after that conversation, the two Butner officers determined that the patrol captain showed no signs of being impaired.

According to court records, SHP Capt. James Williams told Parrott that he’d had a drink earlier in the evening. The patrol captain later testified that as he drove, he had to hold the convertible top with one hand while he was driving to keep it from blowing open.

Parrott then drove the patrol captain to a nearby hotel, and police had the Mustang towed to the public safety building for safekeeping.

A hotel log introduced at the court hearing indicated “Guest was dropped off by BPS (drunk) decided not to stay.” The hotel clerk gave conflicting statements to investigators about whether the highway patrol captain was intoxicated.

Butner’s director of public safety testified that he didn’t know about the incident until a newspaper reporter called him in late April. He said Moss failed to tell him that the trooper was originally pulled over as a suspected drunken driver, or that Moss had discussed the traffic stop with Capt. Bruce Williams on the phone that night.

Judge finds no violations

Administrative Law Judge Beecher R. Gray determined that, while there was testimony that taking a stranded motorist to a hotel wasn’t standard practice, it didn’t violate any department policies and was not given as a reason for Capt. Bruce Williams’ dismissal. The department fired him for violations of its truthfulness policy and failing to ensure Parrott appropriately enforced the law.

The judge noted the attorney general’s office, which represented the state in the contested firings, didn’t prove that Capt. Bruce Williams intentionally lied about anything. The judge also said the Butner captain couldn’t be faulted for his actions after he determined the patrol captain wasn’t impaired.

The state “presented very little evidence that Trooper Williams actually was impaired by alcohol at the time of the stop and even less that (Butner Capt. Bruce Williams) falsely stated that the Trooper was not impaired,” Gray wrote.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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