BARRE — A judge will allow a Massachusetts man to withdraw his guilty pleas to felony drug charges after determining the arresting police officer did not get consent to search the man’s belongings during a traffic stop last summer.
Judge Mary L. Morrissey reviewed body cam footage from then-Berlin Officer John Helfant and determined it did not show evidence that the driver, 26-year-old Carlos Inostroza, gave him permission to search his backpack. Helfant is now the Northfield police chief.
“On these facts, to allow defendant’s convictions to stand would serve to undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and threaten the integrity of the process,” Morrissey wrote in the 10-page decision, filed in Washington County criminal court this week.
Inostroza had pleaded guilty to two felony heroin and cocaine possession charges and a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession in February.
In a sworn affidavit, Helfant said he recognized Inostroza’s vehicle as one involved in an incident the same day, July 12, 2018. Helfant said he followed the vehicle because he knew a woman staying at Highgate had an active arrest warrant, and he wanted to ask the vehicle’s occupants if they’d seen her. Helfant said he saw two rocks of crack cocaine in the car while speaking to the occupants.
Inostroza, one of the passengers, told Helfant he took a bus to Vermont the day before and was staying at his godmother’s, but he didn’t know her last name, according to court records.
Inostroza retrieved his identification from a black backpack inside the car, and, according to Helfant’s affidavit, gave Helfant permission to search the bag. Inside, Helfant found 28.8 grams of crack cocaine and 1.8 ounces of marijuana, along with 65 bags of heroin in a container near the backpack, the affidavit says.
Inostroza agreed to plead guilty last month to the charges and to be sentenced to 179 to 180 days in prison, with credit for time served at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury since his arrest.
Defense attorney Avi Springer subsequently requested the body cam video. After viewing it with prosecution attorneys, Springer filed a motion with the court to withdraw the pleas, noting this “would correct a manifest injustice.”
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault then filed a motion with the court, saying he didn’t oppose the defense’s motion to dismiss if the court found sufficient basis for it.
In the motion, Thibault said neither Helfant’s nor another officer’s body cam footage could confirm evidence of consent. Thibault said there were also “a number of potential deficiencies with the stop,” like failing to screen a co-defendant for apparent impairment; to notify the suspects they had a right to refuse a search; and failing to read Inostroza his Miranda rights before asking consent to search his phone.
Thibault noted it was “indisputable” Inostroza had a felony amount of drugs, but the prosecution used Helfant’s questionable affidavit to bring charges.
“Ultimately, integrity and fairness must stand as the paramount values in Vermont’s justice system,” Thibault wrote.
Judge Morrissey agreed in her ruling.
“At no time did Officer Helfant directly ask defendant for consent to search his person or his property,” Morrissey wrote. “Defendant is not observed on the video, either through words, actions or gestures, to ever convey his agreement to the search. Rather, defendant appears to sit silently in the passenger seat.”
As a result, Morrissey said the court could not let the charges against Inostroza stand.
Through his attorney, David Sleigh, Helfant has “vehemently” denied the allegation against him. The matter has been referred to the Attorney General’s Office, which has asked the Vermont State Police to investigate.
Helfant continues to work on administrative duties as police chief in Northfield.