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9th Circuit Should Reverse Ruling in California Police Whistle-Blower Case

Aug. 21, 2012

9th Circuit Should Reverse Ruling in California Police Whistle-Blower Case

Dahlia v. Rodriguez Sets Dangerous Precedent, Chills Police Officers’ First Amendment Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Burbank police officer who blew the whistle on police misconduct is protected by the First Amendment, Public Citizen told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today. In a petition asking a larger panel of the appellate court to overturn a ruling by three of its judges, Public Citizen argued that if the decision in Dahlia v Rodriguez stands, police officers would not be protected when speaking out about misconduct by fellow officers – and so no officer would speak out.

Beginning in 2007, Angelo Dahlia witnessed fellow Burbank Police Department officers beating, threatening and choking suspects. After he complained within his department, officers threatened Dahlia himself. Shortly after Dahlia disclosed to another law enforcement agency and to his officers association the abuses he witnessed, he was placed on administrative leave and lost pay and a promotional opportunity. In response, Dahlia filed a lawsuit alleging that his First Amendment rights had been violated.

On Aug. 7, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled that Dahlia was not protected by the First Amendment because reporting misconduct is part of his job as a police officer, not an action undertaken in his role as a citizen.

In asking for the case to be heard by an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, Public Citizen argues that the scope of a police officer’s job duties and what speech is protected should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Public Citizen also warns that the decision by the three-judge panel, if allowed to stand, will deter police officers from speaking out about misconduct within their ranks.

“Courageous police officers like Dahlia are in many circumstances the public’s best or even only available source of information about police corruption and abuse,” said Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen. “If the case is not reheard, it will exert a powerful chilling effect on officers who might otherwise report official misconduct and abuse.”

Attorneys at the firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill of Upland, California, brought the case and are co-counsel on the petition for rehearing.