Sheriff fires 2 deputies for illegal vehicle search

The sheriff’s opponent in the November elections called the terminations politically motivated.

EVERETT — Two Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies, including a union president, lost their jobs Friday after an internal investigation found they had conducted a warrantless search of a suspect’s car two years ago, then tried to cover it up.

Sheriff Ty Trenary accused them of dishonesty and other policy violations.

“After a thorough and impartial investigation we found that these two deputy sheriffs had not only conducted an illegal search, but did it in a way that made it clear that they knew what they were doing was wrong,” Trenary wrote in a decision letter.

Trenary’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, sheriff’s Sgt. Adam Fortney, accused his boss of playing politics.

One of the terminated deputies is Matt Boice, a master patrol deputy and union president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. He’s been with the sheriff’s office for nearly a dozen years and was named the 2016 Patrol Deputy of the Year.

Boice said he agreed with Fortney and would work with the union to contest his firing.

“I was terminated because I supported Adam,” he said.

The other deputy is Evan Twedt, who has been with the sheriff’s office for four years and has had “a number of positive performance evaluations and commendations,” according to the sheriff’s discipline letter.

Two other officers were involved in the search, according to the investigation. One deputy was terminated earlier for unrelated reasons, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

Memos outlining the allegations that led to the deputies’ terminations say the internal investigation started in early June, when a lieutenant learned of a 2017 traffic stop that involved a possible warrantless search. When the lieutenant heard the account of a potentially “serious violation of a suspect’s civil rights,” he moved the concern up the chain of command.

A questionable search

On June 10, 2017, the two deputies were assigned to the city of Snohomish, which contracts with the sheriff’s office for police services, when Boice pulled over a car for going 45 mph in a 35 mph zone.

During the traffic stop, Boice reportedly noticed a pipe in plain view and placed the driver — the only occupant of the car — under arrest for suspicion of possession of drug paraphernalia. Twedt arrived on scene about that time.

After placing the man in handcuffs, the deputies found suspected methamphetamine in his pocket and a baggie of .22-caliber ammunition in the driver’s side door. The man reportedly admitted to buying the drugs from a dealer in the area.

The detained man declined to let the officers search his vehicle. Deputies searched it anyway, according to the sheriff’s investigation. One of them found a shotgun in the trunk.

The sheriff later alleged that at least one of the deputies knew the man was a felon who wasn’t allowed to have a gun.

Boice and Twedt said they were performing an inventory search, in which deputies make an account of items in a vehicle before it’s towed, for liability reasons in case the owner claims to have lost their belongings.

The sheriff’s memo, however, says the deputies called for an “evidence tow” — a procedure for securing a vehicle to be searched later at a sheriff’s office impound lot. In such cases, no inventory is done before serving a search warrant.

Furthermore, since 2016, sheriff’s office policy explicitly prohibits deputies from opening a vehicle’s trunk during an inventory search. That means that even under the procedure the deputies claimed they were following, the trunk would have been off-limits.

During a pre-disciplinary hearing in September, a union attorney argued the deputies didn’t know they were violating policy and weren’t acting maliciously.

In his summary of the investigation, Trenary disagreed. He described how the deputies apparently circumvented search warrant practices.

While they eventually claimed to be taking an inventory, the deputies made no mention of it in any of their reports. Nor did they acknowledge finding a shotgun at the scene, before obtaining a search warrant.

Boice and Twedt appeared to be using “unlawful search techniques” before jumping through the legal hoops, Trenary wrote.

“Your failure to mention anything here that would even potentially provide a judge or a superior officer some clue that you had already done the search is both telling and damning,” Trenary wrote.

As a result of the search, Trenary wrote, the suspect eventually pleaded guilty to drug possession.

For the plea, prosecutors agreed to drop charges for unlawful possession of a firearm, which would have carried a harsher sentence.

The sheriff alleged that at least one of the deputies knew the man to be a felon who wasn’t allowed to have a gun.

The suspect has already served his time for the conviction and paid the resulting court fines, Trenary wrote.

“The actions of these two employees … in conducting a warrantless search violated the civil rights of a Snohomish County resident leading to his wrongful conviction,” Trenary wrote in his statement released Friday. “These actions strike at the heart of the trust the public places in us. And, even after they were approached about their actions, they lied and refused to admit any wrongdoing, eroding the trust I had in these deputies to carry out their law enforcement duties.”

Playing politics?

In a Facebook post, Fortney called the terminations politically motivated. He said Boice and Twedt have worked with him on night patrol for the past couple of years and were outspoken supporters of his campaign.

According to state Public Disclosure Commission records, Boice contributed $700 to Fortney’s campaign. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association voted to endorse Fortney over Trenary. Fortney is the immediate past president of the union. Boice said he now must step down from his position as president of the union.

Trenary fired another deputy, Art Wallin, in early October after another investigation. Trenary concluded that Wallin violated department policy when he shot and killed 24-year-old Nickolas Peters a year ago. Fortney was Wallin’s supervisor that night.

“It is well known inside the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office that you do not challenge this administration or you will face retribution,” he wrote on Facebook.

In an interview with The Daily Herald on Friday, he called the terminations “absurd.”

“There is mass confusion in our patrol ranks of what we’re allowed to do and when we’re allowed to do it,” Fortney said.

If the deputies violated policy, Fortney said the sheriff’s office should bear some responsibility. He argued the sheriff’s office didn’t adequately train deputies when it rolled out a new policy manual in 2016.

In a September letter addressed to sheriff’s office leadership, Fortney said he wasn’t aware that deputies couldn’t search the trunks of vehicles. He wrote that he and his crew had “inventoried a trunk countless times over the last several years.”

“It is not an integrity issue, it is not a dishonesty issue and it is not a shady cop issue,” he said. “It is a training issue.”

Fortney’s remarks in the memo caused the sheriff’s office to start an internal investigation to determine whether he had violated policy. Fortney said he objects to the investigation.

Fortney called for an independent investigation into the firings by the county’s executive and prosecutor.

County Executive Dave Somers’ office confirmed that it received a whistleblower complaint within the past month. The office has hired an independent investigator to look into the claims.

“Beyond those things, because of whistleblower laws and because we want to protect people who come forward, we can’t speak in any more detail,” county spokesman Kent Patton said.

Trenary said he welcomed any outside investigation.

In his termination letters to the deputies, the sheriff said their actions struck “at the heart of the trust a citizenry puts in its law enforcement officers.”

The requirement for a search warrant isn’t just a legal technicality, Trenary wrote, but the “underpinning of our freedom as citizens.”

“Put simply, the government does not get to search (or seize) our property or persons without fair and legal reason to do so,” Trenary wrote.

The terminations add to the tension brewing at the sheriff’s office during election season. The contest between Trenary and Fortney has highlighted divergent philosophies about how to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

Voters will make their choice Tuesday.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

This story has been modified to correct the rank of sheriff’s deputy Matt Boice.

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