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Law Allowing Police Officers to Sue Public Ruled Illegal

Court: Federal judge says the unique state rule violates the free speech rights of citizens who complain about misconduct by officers.

October 21, 1999|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

A unique California law that gives police officers special rights to sue citizens who file false complaints against them is unconstitutional, a federal judge in Santa Ana has ruled.

The law violates 1st Amendment rights to free speech and serves no compelling government interest, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor said in the decision made public Wednesday.

Normally, a person cannot sue for defamation over a comment made during an official proceeding. But the police law makes a special exception for officers.

The California Legislature enacted the statute in 1982 at the behest of law enforcement groups after an incident in which a police chief in the Bay Area town of San Carlos was angered because a neighbor called him a drunkard and an incompetent.

The current case involves a 1997 incident in which a Long Beach man, Myron Gritchen, filed a complaint about the conduct of a police officer during a traffic stop. When the Police Department determined that the officer was innocent of misconduct, the officer threatened to sue Gritchen.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California stepped in to challenge the legality of the statute that would have permitted the lawsuit.

The federal court ruling "affirms the basic right of all citizens to speak out about police misconduct," said ACLU attorney Daniel Tokaji, who argued the case.

"No longer will citizens with legitimate complaints against police officers worry that they could lose their life savings or their home because they have the courage to speak out," Tokaji said.

Attorney Larry Roberts of Ventura, who represented police Officer Gordon Collier, said he disagreed with the decision and planned to file an appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In his ruling, Taylor, a 1990 appointee of President George Bush, noted that the California law "restricts defamatory speech against one group of public officials (peace officers) while leaving intact the protections for defamatory speech against other public officials."

That, he said, "is a form of content-based discrimination, since speech about one group of public officials is treated differently than speech about other public officials."

A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision made clear that restrictions on speech that discriminate according to content are unconstitutional, Taylor added.

The Supreme Court ruling did provide some exceptions, the judge said, but the California law did not fit any of them. The law could have the effect of "partially blocking the 'open channel' of communication between citizens and their government, at least to one group of public officials," he said. Moreover, he added, the state had made "no showing . . . that there is a serious problem of false complaints against police."

Los Angeles attorney Merrick J. Bobb, who advises numerous law enforcement agencies, said he was "very, very pleased" with the ruling. Bobb and several other legal experts filed declarations on behalf of Gritchen, saying that the statute had a "chilling effect" on citizens who wanted to file legitimate complaints against law enforcement personnel and that officers had other ways of protecting themselves against false complaints, such as seeking a perjury prosecution.

Bobb, as well as criminal justice professors from Nebraska and Arizona, told the court that "creating a more customer-friendly atmosphere is critical to reducing the fear and intimidation many persons feel about reporting officer misconduct."

"A hostile atmosphere, or even the perception of a hostile atmosphere, has the effect of discouraging complainants and keeping the number of official complaints artificially low," said Samuel Walker, of the University of Nebraska.

Tokaji said the ACLU has represented two other individuals, one in Newhall and one in San Francisco, who were sued for defamation after they filed complaints about alleged police misconduct.

The Newhall case was settled out of court. In San Francisco, the officer filed a defamation action, although a citizen review board upheld allegations that he had used unnecessary force against a citizen and used profanity against a woman witness who protested.

Soon after ACLU attorney Alan Schlosser filed a motion challenging the suit, the officer dropped the case. On Wednesday, a San Francisco Superior Court judge awarded the ACLU $52,000 in attorney fees.

California is the only state that allows lawsuits by police officers but no other public officials. Some states allow lawsuits by public officials in general. The use of such lawsuits has become controversial nationwide, said George W. Pring, a sociology professor at the University of Denver who is the coauthor of a book on the subject.

"The widespread official and quasi-official support for police lawsuits against citizen complainants presents a pervasive and daunting problem," Pring said in a declaration filed in the Gritchen case.

"Police unions and associations have openly expressed their support for such lawsuits," he said. Pring quoted a statement from the editor of a national police union magazine saying that "where we have struck back [with lawsuits], the number of police brutality complaints dropped sharply."

The law in question provides that a police officer may bring a defamation suit against an individual "who has filed a complaint with that officer's employer alleging misconduct, criminal conduct or incompetence" if "the complaint is false, the complaint was made with knowledge that it was false, and . . . was made with spite, hatred or ill will."

The case is Gritchen vs. Collier, SA CV 98-864-GLT

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