Man Suing Cop Gets SLAPPed by Court, Pays $25,000 to PORAC LDF
ALISON BERRY WILKINSON
Berry Wilkinson Law Group
Of Counsel Messing Adam & Jasmine
While just about everybody is aware that the PORAC Legal Defense Fund (LDF) provides a defense to officers accused of criminal or administrative misconduct (depending on the plan in which you are enrolled), few realize that the Fund will also provide coverage if the officer’s employer refuses to defend civil proceedings arising out of actions within the course and scope of employment (see PORAC LDF Plan Document at Article IV, Section 1[b]).
This provision recently benefited former Redding Police Detective Joshua Siipola, and resulted in not only a judgment in his favor and against the plaintiff, but also the plaintiff being required to reimburse the PORAC LDF for the $25,000 in attorneys’ fees it expended defending him (see Michael Peters v. Joshua Siipola, Shasta County Superior Court Case No. 199136). Detective Siipola is grateful to the Fund for supporting him, as well as assigning the Berry Wilkinson Law Group, with the assistance of Messing Adam & Jasmine, to handle the civil lawsuit.
The Underlying Incident
In February 2020, Michael Peters was arrested by Redding police for driving under the influence of alcohol. It was his second offense.
A few days later, the arresting officer told Detective Siipola about the incident because Peters had mentioned Siipola’s name during the jail transport. Siipola recognized the name of the arrestee as the father of Siipola’s fiancée’s child. He then, in turn, told his fiancée about the arrest, because “Mr. Peters drives around the most important thing to her in the world [her child] 50 percent of the time.”
After the arrest, Siipola saw Peters driving his distinctive truck within city limits and suspected he was driving on a suspended license, based on his knowledge of drunk driving laws and procedures. He checked the DMV records, but, apparently due to COVID, the suspension had not yet been processed.
Some time later, Siipola again saw Peters driving in town, again checked his driver’s license status and discovered it was now suspended. Recognizing that his making the arrest and impounding the truck of the father of his fiancée’s child would not look good, Siipola passed along the information about the suspended license, the distinctive truck and Peters’ driving habits to other members of the Redding Police Department.
On February 15, 2021, one of the officers who had been advised of the suspended license and Peters’ driving behaviors observed him driving in the city, spotted an independent mud flap violation and pulled the truck over. Upon confirmation that Peters was driving on a suspended license, he was cited and his truck was impounded.
So began a long, and continuing, nightmare for Detective Siipola.
In defense of the charges filed against him for driving on a suspended license, and in fear of losing his job as a welder for PG&E, Peters claimed his driver’s license had been reinstated and that the DMV records were in error. He also filed a complaint against Siipola, claiming he unlawfully checked his records and had a vendetta against him.
That complaint resulted in a criminal investigation. The district attorney thereafter filed charges against Siipola for violating Penal Code sections 1808.45 and 11142, claiming he unlawfully accessed and disclosed the information about Peters’ suspended license. Siipola was acquitted following a jury trial.
The Peters complaint also resulted in an administrative investigation, which resulted in Siipola being terminated from the Redding Police Department. That termination remains under appeal. In the meantime, Siipola cleared a background investigation with flying colors and was hired by another nearby law enforcement agency, which is far better than the job in a lumber mill he took just after his termination in order to support his family.
Peters, apparently dissatisfied with the criminal verdict, then filed a civil lawsuit against Siipola, alleging 11 separate torts, including defamation, invasion of privacy, violations of the information practices act and infliction of emotional distress. To add insult to injury, the City refused to defend and indemnify Siipola, claiming his actions were outside the course and scope of his employment, and also claimed a conflict of interest because the City was prosecuting his employment termination.
The Civil Lawsuit
It became immediately apparent the civil lawsuit filed by Peters had no merit. Upon review, it was clear that his attorneys had not bothered to read the criminal trial transcript where Peters had admitted, under oath, that his license was never reinstated by the DMV and was, in fact, still suspended on the dates when Siipola advised his colleagues that he was committing a crime within city limits, as well as the date on which he was pulled over and his truck impounded. That admission was significant, because one of the claims against Siipola was for defamation; i.e., falsely telling people Peters’ license was suspended. Because truth is a defense to defamation, the Berry Wilkinson Law Group, with the help of Messing Adam & Jasmine attorney Scott Thorne, quickly got the defamation claim dismissed.
The remaining claims were attacked under the provisions of Code of Civil Procedure section 426.16, otherwise known as the “Anti-SLAPP” laws. Declaring a lawsuit a “SLAPP” action — aka, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — is a highly technical and complicated effort. It requires the defendant (here Siipola) to demonstrate that he engaged in activity protected by the right to petition the government or protected by free speech. To succeed, a defendant must show that the statements made were in connection with an official proceeding authorized by law.
Having identified the lawsuit’s vulnerability under the Anti-SLAPP statute, with the assistance of my colleague, Scott Thorne, I set out to demonstrate that Siipola’s communications advising his colleagues that a crime was being committed within their jurisdiction qualified for protection.
We were successful. The Honorable Stephen Baker of the Shasta County Superior Court ruled that Siipola notifying his colleagues about his suspicions regarding Peters was legal and protected because he had the authority to investigate a crime occurring within his jurisdiction. The court also found he simply “passed on information about the Plaintiff’s suspended license to another police officer,” a protected activity. Consequently, the judge dismissed the claims brought by Peters, and judgment was entered in Siipola’s favor.
The Reimbursement of Fees Expended by PORAC LDF
A SLAPP suit is an abuse of process that is frequently designed to chill or punish people for speaking out about criminal conduct or other matters of public concern. Consequently, under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, when a lawsuit is declared to be an Anti-SLAPP action, the plaintiff is required to pay the defendant’s attorneys fees. Thus, I promptly sought and secured reimbursement of the fees paid by PORAC LDF in the amount of $25,000 in order to replenish its treasury, since the defense had been paid out of dues provided by hardworking (and frequently underpaid) police officers.
Joshua Siipola is grateful to the Fund and its Board of Trustees for supporting him in not just the criminal and administrative proceedings, but also the civil lawsuit, and was proud to be able to repay their assistance by returning the fees expended on his behalf. While the administrative appeal is still pending, he has, so far, succeeded in two out of the three efforts to challenge the lawfulness of his actions. Siipola looks forward to continuing his success during the administrative appeal.
About the Author
Alison Berry Wilkinson is Of Counsel to the law firm Messing Adam & Jasmine LLP and is also principal attorney for the Berry Wilkinson Law Group. In both those roles, Alison is dedicated to providing effective, quality representation to public safety employees in civil, criminal, disciplinary and collective bargaining matters. Alison was honored to be named a “Lawyer of Distinction” in Police Liability Law, and to be rated by her peers as a “Super Lawyer.”