Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fear and Loathing: Internal affairs and due process

Here's an imaginary scenario that isn't so imaginary. A police officer is falsely accused by supervisors of a crime which is a total fabrication. The officer is formally charged administratively, fights the charges, wins and is subsequently vindicated in an external administrative proceeding. The officer sues in federal court for civil rights violations and after being stonewalled in discovery by the attorney general's office (those who represent the officer's employer and supervisors) the officer gets to depose his internal affairs tormentors. Now for the interesting part, one of the IA investigators testifies to destroying files associated with the investigation and the resulting lawsuit. When confronted with the agency's rule and regulations pertaining to reports and retention policy the IA investigator testifies that the rules apply to field officers not internal affairs investigators or supervisors. This is confirmation of what so many cops have been saying for years, IA operates under a different set of standards and rules. Due process rights for police officers have suffered serious infringements in many jurisdictions as a result of the behavior of self-righteous, crusading internal affairs personnel who eschew proper constitutional procedure and engage in "means-end" justifications. It is a case of "nobler-noble cause" corruption which is deserving of closer scrutiny. Just as the concept of prosecutorial misconduct was unheard of three decades ago and is now at the forefront of criminal justice discussions, due process violations by internal affairs investigators are coming more to the open. So too has the unscrupulous acts of some IA officers infected the overall process of internal affairs investigations. While internal affairs is a necessary element of policing and an integral part of the command structure abuses of officers' rights have resulted. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Garrity v. New Jersey police officers are not subjected to a "watered down" version of due process.

So, back to my not so fictional officer, what is his recourse? There is the possibility of a civil tort lawsuit based on defamation. If the defamatory comments (libel if written, slander if oral) are communicated to a third party then that may be the basis for a cause of action. Certainly any individual officers or investigators involved in the defamation or its perpetuation can be held accountable. Officers are now resorting to civil rights law suits against their employers and individual actors based on 42 USC section 1983. While these cases have become more commonplace as they are brought by officers against their agencies, supervisors and co-workers, many are dismissed on summary judgment motions. Careful attention must be paid as to whether federal court and a constitutionally based civil rights cause of action is the best choice of forum and complaint.

Within the realm of constitutional violations committed against officers during the course of an internal investigation the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals gave us an interesting case a few years ago. In McKinley v. City of Mansfield, 404 F.3d 418 (6th Cir., 2005) the court found that a second interview of an officer in violation of the ruling in Garrity could be the basis for an actionable constitutional violation since the results of that interview were admitted into evidence against the officer in a criminal trial. Similar results have been followed in other circuits based on McKinley, though applied in a different context (see eg., Sornberger v. City of Knoxville, Illinois, 434 F.3d 1006). But prior to McKinley the U.S. Supreme Court in Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. 760 (2003) held that section 1983 is not an avenue to provide relief from the simple failure to provide a Miranda warning, especially in that case wherein none of the defendant's statements were used in a criminal proceeding against him. The McKinley court, applying the logic to Garrity in place of Miranda, clearly distinguished the fact that the product of the second internal affairs interview of Officer McKinley was used at trial against him, thus raising the potential constitutional injury.

However, in order to recover damages for an alleged unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment a section 1983 plaintiff must prove the conviction or sentence was reversed on direct appeal, expunged or declared invalid, Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). A similar rationale would appear to apply to disciplinary charges. The bottom line is that officers have due process protections, though somewhat minimized in the disciplinary context, that should be carefully fought for and guarded. Further, when confronted with a disciplinary interview officers must insist on representation whether it be pursuant to state law, contract or collective bargaining agreement. We know from experience there is no bounds to the extent some individuals will go to make a case, especially against an officer.