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ACLU CHALLENGES OFFICERS' RIGHT TO SUE
When a motorist filed a complaint against Richard Gibson 18 months ago after a routine traffic stop, the California Highway Patrol officer wasn't about to let it slide. Unknown to the driver, Gibson had recorded the entire encounter on audiotape. His adversary's claim that he had been "rude, yelled and screamed at him and pounded on his car," according to the officer's attorneys, would be easy to refute. Invoking a little-known state law, Gibson took the driver to mall Claims Court, cleared his name and won $1,000. He even landed a spot on the "Judge Judy" TV show.
So when another motorist, visiting from Virginia, complained last year that Gibson had treated him rudely, the 39-year-old Acton resident didn't hesitate to fight back. Only this time the case has drawn the attention of the ACLU. And the ACLU is not only representing the driver--who is deaf--but challenging the very law that Gibson and dozens other officers have quietly used over the years to vindicate themselves.
The 15-year-old statute gives police legal ammunition enjoyed by no other public officials: the right to file a defamation suit in response to citizens' complaints that are false or made in "spite, hatred or ill will." Proponents say that it gives officers protection against complaints that can taint their personnel record for years, affecting pay raises and promotions. But critics say the law represents an unconstitutional assault on free speech and deters citizens from pursuing legitimate grievances.
The ACLU maintains that the measure is unconstitutional because it exempts police officers from an 1872 state statute that protects a citizen's right to file complaints against the government and seek redress.
"It's a good law. It allows a person who tells lies to be held accountable," said Cliff Ruff, treasurer of the L.A. police protective league which is monitoring the Gibson case but is not directly involved.
Because of the potential impact on members, the CHP officers union has pledged to help Gibson.
"It is an extreme deterrent," said Carol Watson of Police Watch, a L.A. group that refers police misconduct cases to attorneys. "It also deprieves police supervisors of a way of monitoring conduct of their patrol officers. It is a terrible law."
Comments: Cops are sued all the time. It is nice that cops have legal remedies available. But, I am worried about First Amendment.
- Story from the L.A. Times
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