NH Supreme Court nixes new trial for 14-year-old assault of police officer

  • Scott Traudt (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2021 9:48:40 PM
Modified: 1/26/2021 9:48:39 PM

CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a bid for a new trial by a Vermont man who was convicted of punching a police officer during a West Lebanon traffic stop 14 years ago, saying it was too late to file such an appeal.

The 5-0 ruling did not address the merits of the underlying assertion by Strafford resident Scott Traudt, who said his conviction was tainted by the fact that the prosecutor told the jury at his trial that there had been “absolutely no evidence of any kind of a disciplinary mark” or similar complaint against the officers who arrested Traudt.

The 55-year-old Traudt, who served a year in prison in the case and has repeatedly gone to court to overturn what he said was a wrongful arrest, said affidavits in a federal civil case he had brought subsequently revealed that one of the Lebanon police officers did have a disciplinary history.

But the justices declined to weigh those assertions, saying that state law required Traudt to have filed such an appeal within three years of his sentencing in January 2009, not 10 years later in 2019. They affirmed a Superior Court ruling denying Traudt a new trial because of the timeliness issue.

“The language of RSA 526:4 is clear and unambiguous: a motion for a new trial must be ‘filed within three years after the rendition of the judgment complained of, or the failure of suit,’ ” their ruling said. “The statute provides no exceptions or tolling provisions.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Traudt said it was a “terrible ruling” which essentially allows prosecutors to hide evidence of police misconduct, rather than meeting their duty to disclose it, especially given the fact that Traudt was unable to unearth evidence of the disciplinary finding until several years after his conviction.

“This is a defeat for transparency, this is a defeat for defendants’ rights,” Traudt said. “This is a defeat for fair play.”

Traudt was arrested in January 2007 when his then-wife, Victoria, was stopped by Lebanon police officers Richard Smolenski and Phillip Roberts, who said she had run a red light after leaving a West Lebanon night club.

Traudt, who had worked for a private security firm in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a professional mariner, left the car, leading to an altercation with the two officers. They said he punched Roberts and knocked Smolenski to the ground, but Traudt denied any wrongdoing and said the officers had pepper-sprayed and struck him with a nightstick.

He was acquitted in the charge involving Smolenski but convicted of simple assault for punching Roberts.

Because the police officers’ testimony was critical to his conviction — there was no video of the altercation — Traudt said the disciplinary finding should have been revealed to him, since under state law prosecutors are required to inform the defense of any such cases that would call an officer’s credibility into question.

Roberts is now the deputy police chief in Lebanon, and Smolenski is a lieutenant, but remains on paid administrative leave after being placed there last summer pending an internal investigation.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello on Tuesday declined to comment on the Traudt case, and an email seeking comment from Grafton County Attorney Marcie Hornick, who was not in office when he was convicted, was not returned.

For his part, Traudt said he would talk to his attorney to see whether a lawsuit in federal court, asserting his constitutional rights to a fair trial had been violated, was merited.

“We lost this battle, we lost another round, but I believe the issues here are so important I will find a way to get some justice,” Traudt said.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.

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