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Jim Kenyon: Man convicted of assault hopes police files set his record straight

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/18/2020 9:35:15 PM
Modified: 7/18/2020 9:35:13 PM

Scott Traudt can’t get back the year he spent in the New Hampshire State Prison, after a Grafton County jury found him guilty of punching a Lebanon police officer in the head.

But he can try to undo some of the damage.

Traudt, 54, has appealed his 2008 simple assault conviction to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which is expected to consider the case later this year.

“I’m not letting go,” Traudt told me in a phone interview last week. “That year in prison cost me a good job. It cost me my family.”

Traudt, who lives in Strafford, worked for a private security company in Afghanistan and Iraq — earning $200,000 a year — before a late-night encounter with Lebanon police turned violent.

On Jan. 14, 2007, Traudt and his then-wife, Victoria, were pulled over after leaving the now-defunct Electra Nightclub in West Lebanon. Police claimed that Victoria Traudt had run a red light.

While officer Phillip Roberts, who is now Lebanon’s deputy chief, was giving her a field sobriety test, Victoria Traudt dropped out of the view of her husband, who was watching from the passenger’s seat. Scott Traudt said he jumped out of the car to check on her.

An altercation ensued. Traudt was blasted with pepper spray and struck with a nightstick. Or as Traudt put it, “I got tackled and mugged.”

Police gave a different account. They maintained that Traudt punched Roberts and body slammed officer Richard Smolenski to the ground.

As I’ve written before, the case against Traudt was dubious. At the time, Lebanon’s police cruisers weren’t equipped with dashboard video cameras. Without any video evidence or witnesses outside of the four people involved, the case largely boiled down to whom the jury believed was the most credible.

Following a three-day trial at the Grafton County Courthouse, Traudt was found guilty of punching Roberts, but not guilty of assaulting Smolenski.

In sentencing Traudt, Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein displayed the legal system’s proclivity toward police. He ordered Traudt, who didn’t have a previous criminal record, to state prison for one to three years.

Concord attorney Jared Bedrick, who is handling Traudt’s appeal but didn’t represent him at trial, told me that he’s “never seen a sentence that high for a simple assault of an officer, or otherwise.”

Victoria Traudt fared much better. Two charges — driving while intoxicated and a red light violation — were thrown out, and a jury found her not guilty of resisting arrest and simple assault on a police officer. Her attorney, George Ostler, of Norwich, successfully argued that she had acted in defense of her husband. (The Traudts were divorced in 2010.)

If the Supreme Court grants him a new trial, Traudt is banking that a jury will look at his case much differently than the one that convicted him 12 years ago.

Back then, “police were put on a pedestal” by much of the public, he said.

Today, not so much. “The issues of police brutality and misconduct are front and center in the public’s eye,” Traudt said. “People are less inclined to take anything a police officer says for granted without it being backed up by video evidence.”

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office argues that Traudt’s appeal should be denied because, among other things, the “unknown allegations” of police misconduct don’t warrant a new trial. “The other evidence of (Traudt’s) guilt was overwhelming and would not have resulted in a different verdict,” Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock wrote in a court brief.

To bolster his case, Traudt has long sought information in the officers’ personnel records. In his court brief, Bedrick argues that “one of the officers indeed had a history of discipline” that the Grafton County Attorney’s Office failed to disclose before the 2008 trial, which gave the prosecution an “unfair advantage in demonstrating the relative credibility of its witnesses.”

The U.S. and state constitutions “prohibit the suppression of evidence that would have been useful in the preparation of a defendant’s case irrespective of its potential for admissibility at trial,” Bedrick wrote.

Grafton County Attorney Martha Hornick, who was not involved in the 2008 trial, and Lebanon police have denied Traudt’s right-to-know requests, arguing public employees’ personnel records are off limits under state law.

“If public employees are engaged in misconduct, the public has a right to know about it,” said Traudt, who now works as a professional mariner.

A recent state Supreme Court decision has opened the door a bit to officers’ personnel files. In Seacoast Newspapers v. City of Portsmouth, the court overturned a Superior Court ruling that a report about a Portsmouth officer’s firing should remain confidential.

“An overly broad construction of the ‘internal personnel practices’ exemption has proven to be an unwarranted constraint on a transparent government,” Justice Patrick Donovan wrote in a May 29 opinion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has taken up Traudt’s cause. In a right-to-know request to Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello on July 9, the ACLU asked for “all reports, investigative files, and disciplinary records” concerning a redacted complaint against Smolenski, according to court records.

Smolenski, who was hired in 2003, and another officer, Sgt. Paul Gifford, who joined the department in 2008, are currently on paid administrative leave pending the completion of an internal investigation, Mello said. He declined further comment. There’s no indication, however, that the investigation is related to Traudt’s case.

If Traudt’s conviction is overturned, he could regain his federal “security clearance” to work overseas. He could also possess firearms and “go hunting again.”

At the very least, it seems to me that Traudt deserves a new trial and a chance to get parts of his old life back. And taxpayers deserve the right to know what their police officers are doing, even when government officials prefer they do not.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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