State Supreme Court to take up case of former trooper’s ‘good moral character’

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court will take a case involving a dispute over a fired state trooper's "good moral character."
  • A unanimous state Appeals Court panel ruled in favor of former trooper Maurice Devalle, who seeks law enforcement recertification to work for a county sheriff. The group that sets education and training standards for North Carolina's sheriffs objects.
  • Appellate judges ruled that the sheriffs' group did not abide by its own "good moral character" standard when considering Devalle's case.

North Carolina’s highest court will take up a dispute involving the law enforcement recertification of a fired state trooper. A state commission wants to block the recertification. It claims former trooper Maurice Devalle lacks “good moral character.”

A unanimous state Appeals Court panel ruled in May 2023 in favor of Devalle. The NC Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission appealed to the state Supreme Court in June 2023. The commission hopes the high court will reverse the appellate judges’ decision.

A court order Thursday confirmed that Supreme Court justices will take the case.

“In the Devalle decision, the Court of Appeals erred by ruling inconsistently with this Court’s long-established standard for interpreting good moral character,” wrote state Assistant Attorney General Kirstin Greene in the Supreme Court petition. She represents the sheriffs’ standards commission. “The Court of Appeals held that the Commission’s decision that Devalle lacked good moral character was unsupported by substantial evidence, despite the Commission’s finding that Devalle’s testimony lacked candor and sincerity.”

“The Court of Appeals’ decision is flawed as the record contains abundant evidence supporting the Commission’s conclusion and decision,” according to the petition. “Additionally, the Court of Appeals concluded the Commission failed to satisfy the statutory requirement to investigate Devalle’s current moral character, which is also inconsistent with the record.”

“Further, the Court of Appeals held the Commission ‘relied solely on Mr. Devalle’s conduct in 2016 which led to his termination of employment from the Highway State Patrol [sic],’” Greene wrote. “While this is not accurate, this Court has not established any precedent that defines when an applicant’s alleged current character is outweighed by his past when determining lack of good moral character.”

“The Court of Appeals’ departure from existing good moral character jurisprudence displays how the opinion below was in conflict with this Court’s precedent,” the petition added.

By state law, the Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission “is responsible for the certification of all justice officers, including deputy sheriffs, detention officers and telecommunicators, who are employed in the 100 Sheriffs’ Offices,” according to the group’s website.

The May 2023 Appeals Court decision in favor of Devalle reversed the commission’s decision that Devalle lacked “good moral character.”

Devalle had served with the 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 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.