RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina state trooper shouldn't have been fired for losing his hat and lying about it, an appeals court ruled Tuesday in a case that's spanned a decade and multiple trips through the courts.
The case of the lost hat began in 2009 when former Trooper Thomas Wetherington mislaid his signature round-brimmed hat during a traffic stop. The matter has gone all the way to the state Supreme Court once before, generating more than 1,000 pages of legal briefs, rulings and evidence.
"It is unlikely so many lawyers have ever before written so many pages because of a lost hat," wrote North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Donna Stroud in an opinion joined by the two other judges.
Stroud added that the case is not just about a hat: "It is about the tension between the statutorily protected rights of a law enforcement officer and proper discipline to protect the integrity and reliability of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol."
In March 2009 the trooper made a late-night traffic stop of a pickup truck with two occupants who had handguns in the vehicle but were cooperative. Wetherington then drove off to attend to another car stopped a short distance away. The trooper has testified that he noticed he didn't have his hat as he approached the second vehicle. He went back to the first scene to look for it, but all he could find were two gold-colored decorative acorns that were somewhat flattened, according to court documents. Troopers' hats have the decorative acorns attached in front of the patrol insignia.
Wetherington then contacted his immediate supervisor and told him that the hat had blown off his head, court documents state. However, Wetherington testified that he later remembered he had placed his hat on top of his patrol car and it had apparently blown off the vehicle, not his head.
The hat was eventually found by a motorist and returned.
Several weeks after the traffic stop, two superiors questioned him about inconsistencies in his accounts of how he lost his hat. During the meeting, Wetherington broke down in tears and "admitted that the hat did not blow off of his head, but blew off of the light bar," according to the court record.
In August 2009, Wetherington was fired after the patrol determined he had violated its truthfulness policy. He appealed the decision, and the case wound up before state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that the leader of the patrol misapplied the law when he decided he had no choice but to fire Wetherington.
The case began its second trip through the legal system after the patrol upheld Wetherington's firing in 2016.
"I have no confidence that you can be trusted to be truthful to your supervisors or even to testify truthfully in court or at administrative hearings," patrol commander Col. William Grey wrote to Wetherington in 2016.
Wetherington took his case to an administrative law judge, who ruled against him in 2018. Wetherington then went to the court of appeals for a second time.
In Tuesday's ruling, Stroud noted that Grey admitted during testimony that he hadn't read the Supreme Court ruling directing the agency to consider a number of factors including Wetherington's work history and the severity of the actions. Stroud's ruling noted he'd had no prior disciplinary actions and a good performance rating since he was sworn in as a trooper in late 2007.
The appeals court determined that Grey relied on essentially the same logic as the predecessor who initially fired Wetherington, along with the same facts already decided by the courts.
"Col. Grey failed to consider most of the factors our Supreme Court directed were 'necessary' in this case. ... Instead, he considered only his personal assessment of the importance of Petitioner's untruthful statements," Stroud wrote.
Tuesday's ruling sends the case back to the administrative law judge with instructions to reinstate Wetherington to the patrol, determine a more appropriate level of discipline and consider whether he deserves to receive his lost salary.
First Sgt. Michael Baker, a Highway Patrol spokesman, declined to comment on the ruling in an email.
Wetherington's lawyer, J. Michael McGuinness, said in an email that his client intends to return to service, and McGuinness lamented that he's suffered so long over "a simple mistake."
He said that his client's "confusion over the location of his hat during a dangerous high-risk traffic stop involving firearms was surely not a sufficient basis for termination."
By JONATHAN DREW Associated Press
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