Thursday, August 18, 2011

9th Circuit: Felony Charges Alone Do Not Justify Peace Officers' Suspension Without Pay

In Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs v. County of Los Angeles (Aug. 12, 2011, 08-56283) 2011 WL 3524129, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the County of Los Angeles violated peace officers’ constitutional rights by denying them a meaningful appeal of suspensions without pay. The Court found the mere fact an officer is charged with a felony is not enough to justify unpaid suspensions. Instead, a peace officer should be permitted a post-suspension appeal to challenge whether the charges are supported by valid allegations and to determine if the particular felony allegations against a suspended deputy justify suspension.

The case arose after four deputy sheriffs were charged with felonies and suspended without pay. The charges against some of them were later dropped and the others were exonerated by juries. The deputies challenged their suspensions and sought back pay, but the County refused, arguing unpaid suspensions were proper because felony charges, whether supported by valid allegations or not, were pending at the time of the suspensions. The deputies appealed, arguing they were entitled to challenge more than just the mere fact they had been charged with felonies.

Normally, peace officers are entitled to challenge discipline before it is implemented. However, courts look at felony charges somewhat differently than other types of alleged misconduct because whenever there are felony charges an independent third party has determined there is probable cause to believe the employee committed a serious crime. As a result, some courts have held employees who occupy positions of public trust and high visibility, such as peace officers, can be temporarily suspended without pre-suspension due process if felony charges are filed against them.

However, even though pre-suspension hearings may not be required under some circumstances, meaningful post-suspension hearings are required. The dispute in this case was about what the deputies had a right to challenge in their post-suspension appeal.

The County argued it did not have to let the officers challenge the basis for the felony charges because merely being charged with a felony meant the deputies could not do their jobs. The County relied on a rule allowing it to suspend employees based on a “condition which impairs an employee's qualifications for his or her position.” The Court, however, rejected this claim noting “nowhere does the rule state that a felony charge is necessarily such a ‘condition’—indeed, the rule does not mention felonies or felony charges at all.”

The Court therefore concluded the County “rendered the post-suspension hearings redundant and meaningless [and this kind of] “meaningless hearing is no hearing at all, and does not satisfy the requirements of procedural due process.”