Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Court Clarifies Peace Officers' First Amendment Rights

In Dahlia v. Rodriguez the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals expanded first amendment protections for peace officers. The court found speech made outside of the chain of command is protected by the First Amendment because it is made in an officer's capacity as  private citizen.  The case comes after a number of cases limiting public employees' free speech on topics related to their employment.

Officer Dahlia witnessed complained about alleged inappropriate behavior by other fellow officer to his lieutenant who allegedly threatened him, and other officers to keep quiet about the matter. Dahlia alleged he was warned not to be “a cheese eating rat”. Shortly afterward, he was interviewed in an IA investigation and reported these incidents to his Association president. He also repeated his concerns to a different police department investigating the same incident. Then, the Department put Dahlia w on administrative leave pending discipline. 

The court examined each of Dahlia’s actions to decide whether they were protected by the First Amendment or employee speech that is not protected. The Court said reporting to his supervisor was a part of his job duties as a detective investigating a crime and not protected by the First Amendment. The Court said the IA interview was more complicated because if Dahlia disobeyed orders by going to the IA interview, then he acted as a private citizen. The Court said he acted in his capacity as a private citizen when he spoke to his Association president and when he spoke to a different police department.

The court also found Dahlia suffered an adverse employment action as a result of his speech. The threats he received from his supervisor to put him in jail were sufficient to be considered an adverse employment action. Plus, in this case, the administrative leave was considered a punitive action. The court found that loss of overtime, promotional, and experience opportunities made administrative leave an adverse employment action. As a result, the Court found the adverse action would violate the First Amendment.