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A Positive Step: 9th Circuit Vacates Ruling in California Police Whistleblower Case

Dec. 12, 2012

A Positive Step: 9th Circuit Vacates Ruling in California Police Whistleblower Case

Dahlia v. Rodriguez Set Dangerous Precedent, Chilled Police Officers’ First Amendment Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a move that could be good news for whistleblowers, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to rehear a case involving a Burbank police officer who went public about the abuse of suspects by his fellow officers, Public Citizen said today. A Public Citizen attorney worked to secure the rehearing.

The case, Dahlia v Rodriguez, will be reheard in March 2013 by a panel of 11 9th Circuit judges. In August 2012, a three-judge panel had ruled that the First Amendment does not protect any California police officer who reports misconduct within his department. On behalf of the police officer, Public Citizen petitioned in August for a rehearing by a larger panel.

“Courageous police officers like Angelo 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. “We are heartened that the court has chosen to rehear this important case to consider both the officer’s free speech rights and the critical role whistleblowers play in public oversight of government.”

Beginning in 2007, 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 of this year, 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.

In the petition asking for the case to be heard by an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, Dahlia’s attorneys argued that the scope of a police officer’s job duties and what speech is protected should be determined on a case-by-case basis. They argued that if the panel’s decision were allowed to stand, police officers would not be protected when speaking out about misconduct by fellow officers – and so no officer would speak out.

Attorneys at the firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill of Upland, Calif., brought the case and are co-counsel with Public Citizen at this stage.

To read the petition, please visit https://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/getlinkforcase.cfm?cID=773.