Trooper admits to illegal search; his lawyer said he's being scapegoated

Apr. 21—CONCORD — Fired New Hampshire State Police Trooper Haden Wilber admitted Wednesday that he illegally searched the phone of a Maine woman who successfully sued the state of New Hampshire over her 2017 arrest.

A member of a special drug-interdiction patrol unit, Wilber answered an incriminating "yes" or "correct" to a series of questions: the "cursory" phone search was illegal; the search violated the woman's Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure; his reports were poorly written; his reports avoided any mention of the search because he knew it was illegal; he did not file search warrant returns in seven days, as required; he performed other illegal searches in unrelated cases.

His testimony came of the final day of a two-day hearing before the Personnel Appeals Board, where he is challenging his August termination.

His lawyer said Wilber, a trooper of nine years, was fired over the embarrassment of the lawsuit and criticisms that started to arise over pretextual stops by the State Police Mobile Enforcement Team.

"It embarrassed the (State Police) division. Somebody had to hang for it, and they scapegoated Trooper Wilber," said Concord lawyer Marc Beaudoin.

Two people testified on his behalf, a supervisor and John Encarnacao, who retired in 2020 as a major and was in charge of state police narcotics investigations in the early days of the MET. Wilber was one of MET's first two troopers.

Both described an overworked system, with MET troopers logging 60- to 70-hour workweeks to keep up with the opioid crisis.

"Anytime a trooper fails, it's a system failure. As leaders, we're responsible for ensuring the person is successful," Encarnacao said.

Last year, the state paid $212,000 to Maine resident Robyn White, who sued over her February 2017 arrest by Wilber. Wilber pulled her car over for snow on the license plate, got her to consent to a search and discovered a small amount of heroin.

But he had her jailed for 13 days, believing she had hidden drugs inside her body. She was subjected to drug tests, X-rays and a body cavity search before being freed from jail.

The hearing's first day focused on the state police. Internal affairs Sgt. Justin Rowe testified he believed Wilber lied to him.

Wednesday was Wilber's day. Eight supporters sat behind him. His former supervisor, Sgt. Gary Ingham, said Wilber was a mentor to the 24 state police K-9 officers.

"He was always there when needed; the first one to help others; he would pick up the phone day and night. When you asked him to do something, it was done right," Ingham said.

When Wilber answered questions from his lawyer, he was confident. He kept his hands folded on the table , gesturing occasionally. He turned to the board to answer the questions.

Wilber said the internal affairs investigator was asking him about a four-year-old case. He could not recall some details, he said. He was wrong about others.

For example, he initially told Rowe he dropped the case at his supervisor's urging and didn't get a search warrant signed by a judge. But he later went through the files in his car, found the signed warrant and turned it over to internal affairs.

He also said the White stop was a low priority, and Rockingham County prosecutors were dropping a lot of MET cases so he was concentrating on other cases.

"Unfortunately, I did not write a good report, which did not help me," he said.

But under cross examination, Wilber tightened up and admitted to the list of shortcomings ticked off by Safety Department attorney David Hilts. Hilts asked what Wilber would think if a police officer went through his text messages without a warrant.

At first, Wilber said that wouldn't happen because his phone is password protected. Then he said he wouldn't care because if it were being searched he was probably doing something illegal. Pressed further, he said: "I probably wouldn't enjoy them looking through my phone, but they're going to anyway."

The four-member board will meet on July 6 to deliberate on the case.