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Peace Officer’s Termination Upheld Following Off-Duty Altercation With Civilian
LCW Partner Jennifer Rosner and Associate Marek Pienkos successfully represented a county in a peace officer’s termination appeal.
In June 2019, an off-duty deputy sheriff with a county sheriff’s department (Department) was dumping rocks and dirt in an open field. A civilian driver stopped to take pictures of the deputy dumping the materials. The civilian told the deputy that she would post the dumping on social media. In response, the deputy threw a rock towards the civilian, which struck her car and caused significant damage. Another law enforcement agency conducted a criminal investigation into the civilian’s allegations, but the deputy failed to notify his supervisor about that investigation in violation of Department policy.
In July 2020, the Department terminated the deputy for: (i) conduct that caused discredit and embarrassment to the Department; (ii) failing to notify a supervisor that he was the subject of a criminal investigation; and (iii) conduct unbecoming of a deputy.
The deputy appealed his termination. He alleged the civilian threw a rock at his vehicle first – while his children were inside. He then threw a “clump of something” towards the civilian’s vehicle to convince her to get away from him and his children. The deputy admitted that he was angry and used profanity. The deputy claimed his actions were appropriate because he thought his children were in danger. The deputy contended, however, that the civilian was already in her vehicle when he threw the object.
The hearing officer found that despite the dispute over who threw what first, the deputy failed to act in a reasonable or professional manner when he threw something towards the civilian. The hearing officer further noted that the deputy’s statement that the civilian was already in her vehicle when he threw did not support his allegation that he did so in self-defense out of fear for his children’s safety.
The deputy also alleged that he did not violate California Penal Code Section 374.3 because he was dumping dirt rather than garbage. The hearing officer disagreed, noting that a subsection of Section 374.3 prohibits the dumping of dirt and rocks. The hearing officer found that the deputy’s failure to recognize this, regardless of whether he intended to violate the law, constituted an error in judgment that caused discredit to the Department.
Based on the foregoing, the hearing officer upheld the deputy’s termination. The hearing officer also noted that the deputy’s belief that his conduct was justified was “astounding” and meant that the deputy could repeat similar conduct in the future.
Peace officers are held to high standards of conduct, whether on-duty or off, given their position of trust with the public. Here, the hearing officer found that the officer’s belief that his conduct was justified further supported the penalty of termination.