A divided state Supreme Court has found that there is no "public policy" requiring a police officer to be honest.
A divided state Supreme Court has found that there is no “public policy” requiring a police officer to be honest.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the court voted 5-3 to overturn a Court of Appeals decision that had upheld the 2001 firing of Kitsap County sheriff’s Deputy Brian LaFrance for lying and neglecting his caseload. The high court ordered that LaFrance be reinstated.
The ruling sparked a sharp comment from Justice James Johnson, who wrote that he must “dissent from a majority that fails to discern the strong public policy against employing police officers with serious, documented dishonesty and misconduct.”
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The nuanced opinion deals particularly with a clause found in many, if not most, Washington state police and sheriff’s union contracts that sends disputed disciplinary cases to binding arbitration.
LaFrance was fired after an internal investigation determined that he had failed to work cases, including a homicide and child- pornography case, and then repeatedly lied to his supervisor and investigators about it. Investigators found case files scattered in the trunk of his car, and say LaFrance also downloaded pornography onto a police computer in violation of department policy.
The case went to arbitration, and the arbitrator — while upholding the findings that LaFrance committed 29 separate incidents of misconduct — said the department failed to take into account his mental-health issues and determined that termination was too harsh a punishment.
The arbitrator ordered the Sheriff’s Office to reinstate LaFrance after he passed a fit-for-duty exam.
LaFrance was returned to the patrol division.
The Sheriff’s Office then fired him again in 2005, this time on the advice of county prosecutors who said LaFrance could no longer be a reliable witness in any criminal case because his history of dishonesty.
In the majority opinion, Justice Susan Owens wrote that the Supreme Court is reluctant to review arbitration decisions. One exception is when the decision violates “an explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy.”
And that didn’t happen in LaFrance’s case, the justices wrote, because there is no clear public policy in Washington requiring police to be honest.
“There is no code, no state law, that makes it a dominant policy” that could be used to justify overturning the arbitration decision, said Jim Cline, LaFrance’s Seattle attorney.
But that doesn’t mean a police department can’t enforce its internal policies against dishonesty, just as Kitsap County did when it fired LaFrance. But those are not the sort of dominant public policies the court says it will require to overturn an arbitrated settlement, he said.
The state Attorney General’s Office filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, representing prosecutors concerned about how to deal with dishonest cops as witnesses. When LaFrance was fired in 2005, the reason was that the county prosecutor said he could not be a reliable witness because his untruthful past will come up in every case he’s involved in.
But the high court said even that issue does’t rise to the level of public policy that would warrant overturning the arbitrator’s decision to give LaFrance his job back.
“There is no explicit (or even implicit) statement regarding the continued employment of an officer found to be untruthful,” Owens wrote. “Even if we were to agree that the arbitrator’s decision was not good public policy and thought LaFrance’s reinstatement distasteful, the county has failed to cite any … public policy vacating this award.”
Sheriff Steve Boyer said he hadn’t determined what the department’s next step would be.
Assistant Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney Jacquelyn Aufderheide said LaFrance has not worked in the office since 2005.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org