Friday, July 7, 2017

Fifth Circuit Rules Against Officer's Privacy Rights

Recently, in Coker v. Whittington, No. 16-30679 (May 23, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, ruled that Bossier Parish, Louisiana, did not violate the constitutional rights of two sheriff's deputies when it terminated them for violating the local Sheriff's Code of Conduct by moving in with each other's wives before getting divorced from their current wives. This ruling has troubling implications for the constitutional rights of law enforcement officers.

The decision, which was short on analysis and long on bias, ruled that the decisions in Obergefell and Lawrence did not apply to the facts of this case to protect the sheriff's deputies. The court held that public employees "necessarily shed some of their constitutional rights as a legitimate exchange for the privilege of their positions." The court also ruled that the Constitution does not protect "sexually inappropriate" conduct which would "mock marriage." 

Unusually, the court did not perform an analysis of whether the deputies' conduct had a nexus to employment. The court simply concluded that because officers' duties include preventing crimes like human trafficking and spousal abuse, the sheriff's deputies' conduct had the potential to "besmirch the reputation of the Sheriff's department and hinder its ability to maintain public credibility." The court did not explain how the crimes of human trafficking and spousal abuse related to the deputies' conduct as consenting adults. 

Interestingly, it is likely this case would have been decided differently in California. The Ninth Circuit has long held that questioning officers about their sex life and/or rendering employment decisions about their sex life violate privacy and associational rights interests and subject the agency to liability unde 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. Thorne v. City of El Segundo (9th Cir. 1983) 726 F.2d 459, 471.

California's Constitution and state law provides heightened protection for privacy rights and a different view of what is "related to employment." Particularly, California courts have ruled that the critical question is not whether the officer's conduct violated the mores of the public or of the employing agency, but whether such conduct indicates an unfitness for employment with the agency (Warren v. State Pers. Bd., (1979) 94 Cal. App. 3d 95, 104, 156). Further, Yancey v. State Pers. Bd., ((1985) 167 Cal. App. 3d 478), held that “the overriding consideration is the extent to which the employee's conduct results in harm to the public service” (Id. at p. 487), and that "the Legislature did not intend to endow the employing agency with the power to dismiss any employee whose personal, private conduct incurred its disapproval” (Id. at 483.)" 

It is unclear whether the sheriff's deputies intend to appeal the decision at this time. Given the suspect nature of this ruling and Circuit split, the Supreme Court may decide the extent to which an Agency's inquiry into off-duty relationship of police officers exceed scope of state's legitimate interests and violated officer's constitutional rights.  Even if the Fifth Circuit's holding was adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, such inquiries would still likely be deemed to violate California privacy rights.