After he was arrested last Aug. 9 outside a Tilton restaurant and charged with DWI, Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard publicly admitted he has struggled with alcoholism.
“In my 38 years working to help others with alcohol issues, I never thought I would end up in this position, and I fully accept responsibility for creating this situation,” Hilliard said in a statement he issued through his lawyer about a month after his arrest.
Following his statement, Hilliard fought the charge vigorously, as is his right to do.
But the evidence against him was overwhelming and Hilliard was convicted last month of aggravated DWI. Blood tests found that Hilliard had a blood-alcohol level of 0.246, three times the legal limit; Hilliard said he had consumed four vodka and sodas during lunch, and an alcoholic beverage was found on the console of the Cadillac he was driving.
Following his conviction, Hilliard's attorney, Jared Bedrick, said there were mitigating circumstances that warranted leniency in sentencing: “People suffered in silence for many years. Mental health issues were at the surface, and manifested themselves in drinking. He sees it as a blessing in August 2019 when he got this wakeup call. Within four days, he was back in counseling, and has been every week since then. He’s been sober now for six months.”
It is good that Hilliard is getting treatment for his alcoholism and the underlying mental health issues. But as much as the stress of his job may have contributed to his alcoholism, those things are not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
“It’s important to remember, under the badge I wear proudly, there’s a human heart,” Hilliard said outside the courtroom after the sentencing, “but I have to pay the consequences for what I’ve done.”
Judge James H. Leary sentenced the sheriff to 17 days in jail, but only five to serve. He also fined Hilliard $930 and suspended his license for 18 months, which can be reduced to 12 months. It's easy to see why some commoners might consider Hilliard's sentence a mere slap on the wrist to a well-connected member of law enforcement.
Hilliard, who draws an an annual pension benefit of $41,862 for his time as Northfield police chief, is now back at his $78,000-a-year elected position.
The judge was right to take Hilliard's mental health struggles into account in sentencing, but those struggles should not shield the sheriff from a higher standard that ought to be applied when considering violations of the public trust.
While the sheriff was sentenced for breaking the law, he has not faced any consequences for violating the public trust that was placed in his care when he was elected.
To remedy that, he should resign.
Were he still a police chief, it is likely that the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council would yank his certification and he would be removed. But because county sheriffs are elected and not required to be certified, Hilliard is beyond the council's reach.
Merrimack County commissioners say they have no direct authority to remove Hilliard because his position is an elected one. That's true, but it's also a copout, no pun intended. Commissioners could, at least, exercise moral leadership and weigh in on whether they're OK with keeping Hilliard on the job, and they should. Their silence on the issue is tantamount to cowardly assent.
They could even go further and initiate formal removal proceedings – a sort of impeachment – that are spelled out in the law.
Commissioner Peter Spaulding told the New Hampshire Union Leader that commissioners talked about initiating that process, but backed off because it wasn't clear Hilliard was acting in an official capacity when he was arrested – as if that distinction matters to the public.
The county commissioners' continued silence on the Hilliard matter represents an abdication of leadership and a disregard for the consequences that should ensue when an elected official violates the public trust.
And Hilliard's continuation as Merrimack County Sheriff sends the wrong message to the public about accountability and suggests that the sheriff doesn't have nearly as much respect for the badge he wears as he would have people believe.