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Port: That nobody thought a cop dating a prosecutor was a problem is in and of itself a problem

Cops and prosecutors are not on the same team. Our criminal justice system cannot function as it was intended to if they are on the same team.

A man with a goatee gestures while on the witness stand.
Fargo Police Detective Troy Hanson testifies during a felony jury trial for Brandon Grant on Monday, May 23, 2022, in district court, Fargo, for the Feb. 21, 2021, shooting at the Bismarck Tavern in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum
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Minot, N.D. — Detective Troy Hanson, of the Fargo Police Department, and prosecutor Sheralynn Ternes, of the Cass County State's Attorney's Office, began a romantic relationship and nobody thought that was a big deal until we in the news media got a hold of the story.

That, in and of itself, is a problem.

To be clear, the relationship itself isn't necessarily a problem, which is the finding of a review of this matter launched by Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski , but the fact that the Fargo Police Department and the Cass County State's Attorney did little to protect criminal investigations from the conflicts of interest this relationship created is a really big deal.

State's Attorney Birch Burdick has claimed, to myself and other reporters, that arrangements were made to keep Hanson and Ternes from working on the same cases together, but it's not clear what those arrangements were. Burdick has said he learned of the relationship in December (it had been going on prior to that) yet months later Ternes was still prosecuting cases Hanson had been involved with as an investigator .

Some criminal defendants weren't aware of the relationship between the detective investigating them, and the attorney prosecuting them, until our news reports disclosed it publicly.

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That's a travesty.

As for the Fargo Police Department, the review found that Hanson's supervisor wasn't even aware that such a conflict might be a problem.

“Honestly it never dawned on me,” Sgt. Chris Nichtern is quoted as saying by the department's review when asked why he didn’t tell supervisors. “I just never thought it was anything of any kind of relevance. It never even occurred to me that it could be considered a conflict of interest or anything and I still don’t think it is.”

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Per our April Baumgarten's report , "Nichtern said he could see a conflict if Hanson was dating a defense attorney, but not because he was dating a prosecutor because they are on the same 'team,' the report said."

Cops and prosecutors are not on the same team. Our criminal justice system cannot function as it was intended to if they are on the same team.

Police officers have a duty to establish facts. Those facts are to be used in a criminal proceeding by both the prosecution and the defense. They aren't supposed to be on anyone's side. Let's remember, too, that sometimes cops also have to be prosecuted for the crime they commit, both on and off duty.

That Nichtern, a 25-year veteran of the Fargo Police Department, apparently didn't know about this separation is abysmal.

Nichtern will have to undergo training as a result of the findings of his department's review. Hanson, however, has been cleared, though I'm not sure he should have been. If he didn't understand that it wasn't right to be investigating cases his girlfriend was prosecuting, then he, too, needs training.

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Nor should the Cass County State's Attorney's Office be off the hook. They're lawyers. They should know, even better than the cops, that a failure to disclose evidence that might speak to the biases or credibility of a witness in a criminal proceeding (like, say, the fact that the witness is dating the prosecutor) is a violation of due process rights.

The romantic relationship between Hanson and Ternes isn't necessarily a big deal. Human beings fall in love! As long as the proper disclosures are made, we should all wish them well.

But the lackadaisical way it was handled by the Fargo Police Department, and Cass County, reveals some deeply troubling problems about the larger relationships between cops and prosecutors, and I'm not sure there's much commitment in either agency to addressing them.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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