Local News

Judge upholds trooper's firing over obscene joke

Posted August 6, 2009 7:25 a.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2009 8:25 a.m. EDT

— A judge has upheld the state Highway Patrol's decision to fire a trooper for an obscene joke that the trooper admitted was in bad taste. However, the judge said he might have imposed a "lesser sanction" on the veteran trooper.

Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. said the state's decision to fire Ronald Gene Ezzell Jr. "should be left undisturbed."

"While I may have decided to impose a lesser sanction based upon the maxim, 'Justice tempered with mercy,' for a veteran trooper, I am not convinced that these officials acted erroneously," Morrison wrote in his decision.

The case now moves before the North Carolina Personnel Commission, which will make the final decision.

Ezzell, a helicopter pilot who worked for the Highway Patrol for 19 years, was in a marked cruiser in the drive-through lane at a State Employees Credit Union branch in Kinston last October when he passed an image to a teller.

The doctored photo showed a boy with enlarged genitals.

Although two bank tellers decided not to file a complaint with the Highway Patrol, word about the incident spread to Ezzell's supervisors. After an internal investigation, they recommended that he be suspended and demoted.

Col. Walter Wilson, who recently retired as Highway Patrol commander, decided instead to fire Ezzell, saying he had reprimanded Ezzell earlier after the trooper made inappropriate comments to a teenage waitress when the two men were at lunch.

Reuben Young, secretary of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, said he supported Wilson's decision to fire Ezzell.

Ezzell and his attorney, Woody Webb, maintained that suspension and demotion was the appropriate punishment in the case, which they said was simply a bad joke that went too far.

"My decision that day was poor judgment," Ezzell testified during a July hearing. "It was only meant as a joke. I didn't mean any forethought or malice to offend anybody. Had I known I'd offended anybody, I would have apologized."

"Not every transgression should rise to the level of a dismissal," Webb said.

The case is the latest in a series of trooper's appealing firings or demotions. Several troopers have been dismissed in the past couple of years amid allegations of profiling women for traffic stops, having sex on duty, drunken driving or animal abuse.