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Woodland Police Officer Ordered Reinstated by Superior Court Judge

Posted on Tuesday, November 01, 2005 at 12:00PM
Posted by David J. Garcia

City of Woodland Police Officer Gina Bell has returned to work after a convincing victory in the Yolo County Superior Court on a petition for writ of mandate, compelling the city to reinstate her based on the findings of the city’s Personnel Board.

The allegations against Officer Bell arose when the mother of an accident victim complained to the Police Department that the other driver had not been arrested by Bell even though the driver was “obviously” intoxicated. Bell, a new officer, had written a report erroneously describing her efforts to determine whether the driver was under the influence as “a series of field sobriety tests.” She had based her determination that the driver was not impaired on observations and an E-PAS test, but not on other “standard” FSTs. She did not arrest the driver.

Last fall, the city Personnel Board exonerated Bell on charges of dishonesty and incompetence, and recommended the city manager reinstate her. (“Woodland Police Officer Wins Reinstatement After Personnel Board Dismisses All Charges,” PORAC Law Enforcement News, Vol. 37, No. 1, January 2005.) Despite those findings and recommendation, however, the city manager endorsed the police chief’s disciplinary action and fired Bell. I filed a petition for writ of mandate in Yolo County Superior Court to overturn the city manager’s decision.

Court Finds Officer Bell Conducted a Competent Investigation

Ignoring the Personnel Board’s lengthy findings supporting Bell’s conduct, the city manager minimized Bell’s investigation and assessment of the driver’s impairment. Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner criticized the city manager’s decision and found Bell had performed a competent investigation. The court focused on several areas, including that Bell observed the driver for objective signs of impairment and determined the driver was not impaired; the slight odor of alcohol was the only symptom of possible impairment Bell had observed; Bell used the E-PAS device to confirm her observations and to eliminate the possibility of impairment; and officers within the Woodland Police Department, including those holding the rank of detective and sergeant, testified they and other officers had used similar investigation techniques.

Judge Warriner also relied on Woodland Police Department General Order 624.10.B to expose the department’s ambiguous guidelines for DUI-related investigations. The court found that even in the context of a DUI investigation, the general order does not require an officer to administer the standardized FSTs in every circumstance or require FSTs to be conducted at an early stage in an officer’s investigation. On its face, the general order permits officers to use the alcohol breath screening device to assist with determining impairment. This is exactly what Bell did on June 26, 2003.

Court Finds Officer Bell Was Not Dishonest

The court also disagreed with the city manager’s unsupported finding that Bell was dishonest in her report when she included the phrase, “I administered a series of field sobriety tests”. The court focused on the fact Bell relied on the Statewide Integrated Reporting System (SWITRS) Manual for the operative phrase. Bell had copied the phrase nearly verbatim from the SWITRS manual. As a result, there was no evidence to establish she lied in her report when describing her actions during the investigation.

Likewise, the court found the preponderance of the evidence did not support a finding that Bell was dishonest in her internal affairs interview. At issue was an unrecorded statement Bell allegedly made shortly after her internal affairs interview ended. Warriner found it “troubling” that a statement which was crucial to the investigation was not recorded. Without a clear record, it was impossible to determine what Bell said.

Court Criticizes Internal Affairs Investigation

The court also criticized the internal affairs lieutenant’s investigation for failing to record other witness interviews. The court found the lieutenant’s recollection of the IA interviews “problematic” because the interview summaries omitted the substance of his conversations with various witnesses. The interview summaries left the judge to guess at what was actually said by several witnesses in the investigation.

Judge Warriner found the preponderance of the evidence did not support any of the city manager’s findings against Bell. He issued a writ of mandate ordering the city to reinstate Gina Bell with full back pay and benefits.

Bell is grateful to the PORAC Legal Defense Fund for its support in filing the petition for writ of mandate to enforce her rights and to the Woodland Professional Police Employees’ Association for assisting with her defense.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David J. Garcia is an associate labor attorney at Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller, Johnsen & Uhrhammer and represents public safety employees throughout California. He represented Gina Bell in the proceedings before the Woodland Personnel Board and the Yolo County Superior Court.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.