RALEIGH, N.C. -- Was firing a state trooper who lied about what happened to his hat justified? That was the question before North Carolina's Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Thomas Wetherington, who is challenging his 2009 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 realized later he had left it on the light bar of his patrol car, but he didn't tell his bosses what really happened.
The hat was returned to the Highway Patrol in good condition a few weeks later by one of the people Wetherington had pulled over that day. The then-22-year-old trooper said he stuck to his first explanation because he had been reprimanded before for misplacing his headgear.
Wetherington's lawyer, Michael McGuinness , told justices the firing was too harsh and tried to describe the case as about little more than the trooper mistaking his hat's location.
"Is it really hat location or the elaborate stories that he told about what happened to his hat?" Justice Paul Newby said. "What he got wrong is making up a story instead of saying, 'I don't know.'"
The Highway Patrol's truthfulness policy says no patrol member "shall willfully report any inaccurate, false, improper or misleading information." An administrative law judge and a majority on the state personnel commission upheld the firing. Two lower courts reversed them, saying the firing lacked just cause.
The legal issue before justices was whether state courts should review the facts behind firings and make their own conclusions, or limit rulings to whether an agency's decision was rational.
Wetherington's attorneys cited dozens of examples of troopers receiving lesser punishment for more serious lies and crimes.
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.
It was in 2002 that two infamous cases of trooper misbehavior came to light. In one case, a sergeant was caught having sex with his ex-wife while on duty and making dozens of threatening phone calls to her. He was demoted and took a pay cut, but was later promoted to sergeant again. In the other case, two troopers admitted to extramarital affairs with the same woman that included sex while on duty or inside patrol cars. One trooper was fired and the other suspended for five days.
Firing any trooper who fails to tell the absolute truth may be unworkable, McGuiness said.
"If a trooper is questioned by a first sergeant whether or not the trooper is a Carolina basketball fan, and he knows that the first sergeant was a Carolina graduate, what if he misrepresents to sort of please the sergeant?" McGuiness asked the justices.
Superior officers shouldn't be forced to sort through which lies are forgivable or not, said Thomas Ziko, a lawyer representing the state Department of Public Safety.
"It's self-evident that all police officers must be trustworthy. They have too much power - to stop people in dark streets, to invade your home, to actually use deadly force - not to have people who are entirely trustworthy," Ziko said.