BARRE — The state asked a judge Monday to drop felony drug possession charges against a Massachusetts man after Northfield Police Chief John Helfant, a former Berlin cop, allegedly lied in an affidavit establishing probable cause for the man’s arrest.
Helfant arrested Carlos Inostroza, 26, of Springfield, Massachusetts, after locating drugs in Inostroza’s backpack during a vehicle stop at Highgate Apartments in Barre last July. Helfant, then a Berlin police officer, said Inostroza consented to the search, but body camera footage from officers at the scene shows otherwise, defense attorney Avi Springer wrote in a motion in January.
Helfant, who attended the hearing at Washington County criminal court on Monday, complained afterward he was not deposed by either the prosecution or the defense before State’s Attorney Rory Thibault requested the charges be dropped.
Judge Mary L. Morrissey did not rule on the request Monday, instead taking the case under advisement. She plans to review the body camera footage and issue a ruling at a later date. Thibault has referred the case to the attorney general’s office, which confirmed it is investigating the case.
Helfant, through his attorney, has “vehemently” denied the allegation, and he continues to work as the chief of police in Northfield.
According to court records, Helfant said in his affidavit 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.
One of the passengers, Inostroza, 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.
Springer’s subsequent motion disputed Helfant’s claims and requested a review of body cam video.
“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 stated.
Springer asked Ashley Hill, the deputy state's attorney handling the case, to review the body cam video. She referred the disputed discrepancy to Thibault, who concurred the video did not show consent. Before Springer's request, Thibault said the prosecution based their case on Helfant's affidavit.
Rather than wait to litigate suppression of the evidence because he did not consent to a search, Inostroza agreed to plead guilty to charges of felony heroin and cocaine possession and a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession last month. He was sentenced to 179 to 180 days in prison, with credit for time served at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury since his arrest.
Thibault said he didn’t oppose the motion for Inostroza to withdraw his guilty pleas and said he would dismiss the charges if the court found sufficient basis to do so. He noted that despite the drugs found on Inostroza, it did not “excuse or justify unlawful police activity.”
Thibault said although the evidence was great, the means by which it was obtained were called into question. Efforts to enhance the video because of some background noise and additional body cam footage from another officer did not alter Thibault’s conclusion that Helfant did not obtain consent.
“It is beyond dispute that Mr. Inostroza was in violation of the law by having significant quantity of illicit drugs, very damaging drugs to our community, in his bag in that vehicle at the time,” Thibault said in court. “Notwithstanding that, being a bad person doesn’t strip one of their Constitutional rights and protections.”
Inostroza was back home in Massachusetts and listened to the hearing by phone, but made no comment.
Helfant served a short stint with Berlin Police before being named chief in Northfield in the fall. Prior to that, he retired from the Vermont State Police after serving 28 years.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the prosecutor's role in examining the body cam evidence.