Recent Opinion Provides Clarity in the Case of Peace Officers Under Investigation
February 5, 2016
A recent Court of Appeal decision provides guidance on when peace officers must be notified of potential action against themselves prior to interrogation. Current law in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (Government Code Sections 3300-3313) lays out the requirements that must be followed “when any public safety officer is under investigation and subjected to interrogation by his or her commanding officer, or any other member of the employing public safety department, that could lead to punitive action.” One requirement is that “the public safety officer under investigation shall be informed of the nature of the investigation prior to any interrogation.”
In the recent case, Ellins v. City of Sierra Madre, the Court interpreted what “prior notice” really means and what public agencies are required to provide peace officers. The case involves a police officer who used a confidential database to look up a former romantic interest, without any work-related need to do so. He then refused to participate in the subsequent interrogation, and was ultimately terminated.
The Court states that the code “requires an officer to be informed of the nature of the investigation ‘reasonably prior to’ the interrogation – that is, with enough time for the officer to meaningfully consult with any representative he elects to have present.”
However, the Court’s opinion also includes this important piece of information: “an employing department with reason to believe that providing this information might risk the safety of interested parties or the integrity of evidence in the officer’s control may delay the notice until the time scheduled for interrogation as long as it thereafter grants sufficient time for consultation.”
This ruling confirms that public agencies have authority and responsibility to protect public safety and not compromise an investigation, while still respecting employees’ rights.