The Counsellor's Corner
It was a bad week for police officers. A federal judge decided that a California law which permitted police officers to sue people for lodging false complaints against them is unconstitutional. Federal Judge Gary Taylor decided that the law treated complaints made by citizens against police officers differently than complaints made by citizens against all other government officers, and that this would constitute “an impermissible content-based discrimination against a type of speech.”
This ruling stemmed from an incident occuring in April of 1998 in which a Cypress man was stopped by a Long Beach Police Officer. A Mr. Gritchen was stopped for speeding and the next day he went to the Long Beach Police Department to file a complaint. His complaint claimed that officer Gordon Collier had alcohol on his breath at the time of the stop and was discourteous and argumentative to him. The Long Beach Police Department then conducted an internal investigation and concluded that Officer Collier had not acted inappropriately in any way. The officer’s attorney then filed a lawsuit against Mr. Gritchen suing him for defamation, specifically referring to the allegations that the officer was intoxicated when he stopped Mr. Gritchen. While Judge Taylor acknowledged that this law might help protect police officers from untrue complaints, his concern was that it might be used to discourage legitimate complaints.
In this matter, Mr. Gritchen was defended by the ACLU, which was extremely happy with the ruling. An ACLU spokesman indicated that, “This ruling affirms the basic right of all citizens to speak out about police misconduct.” The ACLU spokesman further pointed out that citizens will no longer have to be concerned about losing their life savings if they file a complaint against a police officer.
This case may well be appealed, at least that is the position of the General Counsel for the Los Angeles Police Protective League. The law in question, Civil Code Section 47.5, only allows officers to sue for false complaints if it is found they have been filed maliciously. The League claims that police officers who are doing an honest job now have no remedy in the law to respond to those who file false complaints.
Statistically speaking, there were approximately 8,000 civilian complaints against police officers in 1998, and 25 of them resulted in lawsuits being filed by police officers against the citizen complainants pursuant to Civil Code Section 47.5.
I imagine that this ruling will be appealed, and it is my hope that it will be affirmed. This is a bad law and the ruling is appropriate. Perhaps our legislators in Sacramento can draw up a new piece of legislation that will protect police officers in a way that doesn’t curtail the rights of those who have complaints. This particular case illustrates the problem with the present law. How could Mr. Gritchen possibly prove that the officer was impaired by alcohol at the time he was stopped? By the time the complaint is filed, and certainly by the time the complaint is investigated; if the officer was impaired by alcohol, the alcohol would now be out of his system. It would have dissipated and there would be no way for Mr. Gritchen’s complaint to be proved either true or false.
The Police Protective League is concerned that police officers can lose their jobs because of inappropriate and false complaints; however it would be my fervent hope that a police agency would not take any action against an officer until the matter was fully investigated and a conclusion was reached.
It will be interesting to follow this ruling on appeal to see whether or not the appellate court agrees with Judge Gary Taylor. It is my hope that the ruling is upheld, this law remains unconstitutional, and the police departments and legislators try again.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.