BARRE — A motion has been filed in Washington County criminal court to withdraw the guilty pleas of a Massachusetts man convicted on drug charges, after allegations that Northfield Police Chief John Helfant lied in his affidavit in the case.
The motion was filed Tuesday by defense attorney Avi Springer, who represents Carlos Inostroza, 26, of Springfield, Massachusetts. A hearing on the motion is expected in the next few weeks, Springer said.
Ashley Hill, the deputy state’s attorney prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the motion. Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault also declined to comment on the motion Wednesday, saying his office had not had time to review it.
Thibault referred the case to the state Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General T.J. Donovan confirmed Wednesday there is an investigation into the case.
According to the motion, Inostroza pleaded guilty in Washington County criminal court in Barre on Jan. 15 to felony counts of heroin possession and cocaine possession and a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. Inostroza was sentenced to 179 to 180 days to serve with credit for time served. He was held at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury without bail since his arrest in July.
During the change of plea hearing, the state’s attorney’s office said it was entering into the agreement because there were issues with the evidence in the case that would have been an issue if the case had gone to trial.
The day before his guilty pleas and sentencing, defense counsel obtained copies of body camera videos of officers at the scene of Inostroza’s arrest, the motion said.
“In the videos, it appears that, contrary to the affidavit of probable cause completed by the arresting officer, Mr. Inostroza did not consent to the search that resulted in the seizure of contraband at issue in the case,” the motion said.
The motion noted that after the Washington County State’s Attorney’s office reviewed the videos, it agreed to the proposed time-served plea agreement on Jan. 15 but was not in a position to make a decision on the defense counsel’s request for outright dismissal of the charges against Inostroza.
Inostroza, through his attorney, is now asking the court to allow him to withdraw his guilty pleas, the motion said.
“Furthermore, given the rapidly evolving circumstances under which Mr. Inostroza pled guilty and the developments that have occurred since he entered his guilty pleas, allowing withdrawal of the pleas would correct a manifest injustice,” the motion added.
According to court records of the arrest, then-Officer John Helfant said in his affidavit for the Berlin Police Department he was looking for a vehicle involved in an incident on July 12. Helfant is now the police chief in Northfield.
Helfant said he saw a vehicle leaving the Highgate Apartments in Barre City and followed it because he knew a woman staying there had an active arrest warrant and he wanted to talk to the people in the vehicle to see if they had seen her. He said the car stopped and he got out and spoke to the people inside when he saw two rocks of crack cocaine inside the car.
Helfant said one of the passengers was Inostroza, who told Helfant he had come to Vermont by bus on July 11 and was staying at his godmother’s but he didn’t know her last name, according to court records.
Helfant said Inostroza retrieved his identification from a black backpack inside the car. Inostroza gave Helfant permission to search the backpack and inside he 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, according to Helfant’s affidavit.
David Sleigh, the attorney representing Helfant, said his client “vehemently” denies the allegations that he lied in his affidavit.
Sleigh said if Springer felt there was evidence that contradicted Helfant’s affidavit, he should have presented it before Inostroza was convicted, not afterwards.
“So, the guy’s been in jail for seven months and (Springer) didn’t get the body cams for over half a year?” Sleigh said.
If Springer thought the evidence in the case was obtained illegally, he could have filed a motion to suppress, Sleigh added.
“Collaterally, if the prosecutor shared that view, that’s a serious ethical violation, to predicate a conviction upon unlawfully obtained evidence, so, a really shoddy practice all round,” Sleigh said. “... We’re confident that review of the tapes with John present to explain what the recordings show will vindicate him.”
Jeff Schulz, Northfield’s town manager, said Friday that Helfant is on administrative duties only. He has declined to comment, calling it a personnel matter.
Helfant retired after serving 28 years with Vermont State Police. He then served a short stint with the Berlin Police Department before being named chief in Northfield in the fall.