Appeals Court backs former trooper’s bid for restored law enforcement certification

May 16, 2023

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  • A unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals panel has ruled in favor of a former state Highway Patrol trooper seeking to have his law enforcement certification restored.
  • An administrative law judge and Superior Court judge rejected a state commission's finding that former trooper Maurice Devalle lacked "good moral character."

A unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals panel has affirmed a trial court’s decision that a former state trooper should have his law enforcement certification restored. Tuesday’s ruling in favor of Maurice Devalle reversed a state commission’s decision that Devalle lacked “good moral character.”

Devalle had served with the N.C. State Highway Patrol for 19 years, with a single written warning as discipline, before 2016, according to the Appeals Court opinion.

In November 2016, a tip led the Highway Patrol to discover that Devalle was at home in Wake County when he was scheduled to be working in Wayne County. Patrol officials learned that Devalle lived outside a mandated 20-mile radius of his work duty station. During an investigation, Devalle admitted that “on occasion” he would drive home for lunch and stay at home for extended periods of time while on duty.

The Highway Patrol fired Devalle in April 2017. The N.C. Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission revoked his certification.

In August 2017 Devalle began working as a school resource officer at East Columbus High School. He applied for justice officer certification through the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. In January 2019, the commission denied Devalle’s request indefinitely. “The notification indicated to Mr. Devalle his denial was due to him ‘[n]o longer possessing the good moral character required of all justice officers,’” Appeals Court Judge Hunter Murphy wrote.

In a December 2019 hearing before an administrative law judge, the Columbus County sheriff and East Columbus school principal testified on Devalle’s behalf. “Both individuals testified in depth to the effect that Mr. Devalle currently had good moral character,” according to Murphy’s opinion.

In June 2020, the judge ruled in Devalle’s favor. But the commission rejected that recommendation in October 2020.

“The Commission accepted and found the testimony of Mr. Devalle’s present character to be credible and believable,” Murphy wrote. “The Commission found, however, that Mr. Devalle lacked candor and truthfulness while testifying on cross-examination at the contested case hearing, and therefore concluded he lacked the good moral character required for justice officer certification. The Commission denied Mr. Devalle’s certification indefinitely as a result.”

A Columbus County Superior Court judge reversed that decision in November 2021 and ruled in Devalle’s favor. The judge ordered the commission to grant Devalle’s application for certification and to make the certification retroactive to August 2017.

“Mr. Devalle maintains the trial court’s order should be affirmed because the Commission failed to present sufficient evidence that his 2016 conduct amounted to ‘a severe case’ of bad moral character warranting indefinite denial, ‘particularly in light of the evidence of rehabilitation, and that his present character is good,’” Murphy wrote. “Mr. Devalle maintains the Commission erroneously distorted the administrative law judge’s ‘credibility determinations and [failed] to give deference to her role as the fact-finder and [that] this conduct amounts to arbitrary and capricious decision making on the part of’ the Commission.”

“We agree with the trial court and conclude the Commission did not abide by its own good moral character standard when it denied Mr. Devalle’s justice officer certification indefinitely,” Murphy wrote. “The Commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, and its denial was unsupported by substantial evidence.”

Judges John Tyson and April Wood supported Murphy’s opinion.