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Peace Officer’s Termination Upheld After His Unsafe Driving Killed Two People
LCW Associate Paul Knothe successfully represented a county in a peace officer’s termination appeal.
In December 2013, a deputy sheriff with a county sheriff’s department (Department) was parked in a patrol car when a civilian volunteer with the Department requested assistance regarding a fight. After numerous units requested additional information on the fight, it was determined that emergency assistance was not needed. Despite this, the deputy drove up to 86 mph in a residential neighborhood to respond to the volunteer’s request without activating his vehicle’s emergency equipment (i.e., vehicle lights and siren). The deputy collided with another vehicle, killing two passengers in the other vehicle.
Another law enforcement agency responded to and investigated the collision. The investigation determined that the primary cause of the collision was that the deputy was driving at an unsafe speed. The investigation further determined that the deputy was responding to an emergency call without lights or a siren.
After the county District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against the deputy, the Department initiated its own investigation. Based on this investigation’s findings, the Department terminated the deputy in September 2016 for failing to conform to the standards of a deputy sheriff; displaying an unwillingness and/or inability to operate a patrol vehicle in a safe and responsible manner; and displaying poor behavior by driving at speeds above the posted speed limit, among other reasons.
The deputy appealed his termination. He admitted to speeding prior to the collision and that he was not using his lights or siren. He argued that termination was not the appropriate level of discipline. In support, he alleged that he was not the primary cause of the collision and the resulting fatalities because: (i) the driver of the other vehicle was under the influence of marijuana; and (ii) the passengers killed in the collision were not wearing seatbelts. The hearing officer found that, even if those facts were true, the deputy unnecessarily drove at a dangerously high speed and failed to use his emergency equipment to make his vehicle more visible. Moreover, the other agency’s investigation supported that the deputy’s unsafe driving was the primary cause of the collision.
The deputy also alleged termination was inappropriate given: his lack of prior discipline for on-duty driving; his tenure with the Department; the level of discipline issued to other deputies involved in fatal collisions; and because he was responding to an emergency call. The hearing officer disagreed, finding that the deputy demonstrated an inability to perform to the standards required of peace officers operating Department-issued vehicles. The hearing officer also noted that the Department need not impose the same level of discipline for all deputies involved in fatal collisions since the circumstances of each collision will be different. Based on the foregoing, the hearing officer upheld the deputy’s termination.
The deputy sheriff did not refute key facts underlying his discipline. Instead, he alleged that termination was excessive discipline. In preparation for such an argument on appeal, agencies should ensure that any notice of termination outlines: all of the reasons why the officer’s misconduct harms the public service; and why the agency believes the officer can no longer safely perform peace officer duties.