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Arbitrator Overturns Termination of Trinity County Deputy

Posted on Friday, November 01, 2002 at 12:00PM
Posted by Paul Q. Goyette

At the time of his termination, Tranquilla had served for almost 20 years and was serving as a detective and training officer when the department terminated him. The department terminated Tranquilla for numerous charges including dishonesty in four cases that are described as: the Rogers case, the Spurlock case, the Brown case, and the Price case.

The Rogers Case: The department alleged Tranquilla did not submit a polygraph examination report to the district attorney’s office and that he subsequently lied about completing the report. In this case, the Department of Justice administered a polygraph examination where the subject of the examination failed. The DOJ polygraph examiner advised Tranquilla of the subject’s failure. Tranquilla immediately advised the involved deputy district attorney that the subject had failed. At hearing, the deputy district attorney confirmed that Tranquilla reported that the subject failed the polygraph examination. At the time of the hearing, the deputy DA was still waiting for the DOJ report. The deputy DA testified that he had not requested the report from Tranquilla contrary to the department’s allegations. The arbitrator found that Tranquilla had completely performed his duties and did not commit any type of misconduct.

The Spurlock Case: In this case, the department alleged that Tranquilla failed to complete a report in a timely fashion and failed to deliver a videotape to a deputy DA pursuant to his request. The department also alleged that Tranquilla lied about completing the report.

At hearing, the department was not able to present any evidence that Tranquilla committed misconduct. The deputy DA testified that he did not remember ever requesting a videotape from Tranquilla. In addition, the evidence showed that Tranquilla was not required to do a report because the case settled by a plea bargain at a very early stage. The deputy DA testified that on previous cases Tranquilla always completed those reports in a timely fashion. The arbitrator concluded that Deputy Tranquilla again committed no type of misconduct.

The Brown Case: In this case the department alleged that Tranquilla was dishonest and neglected his duties when he failed to complete a report in a fraud case. In this case, Tranquilla received a postal fraud complaint from the local Chamber of Commerce. Tranquilla conducted an initial investigation and discovered that postal fraud cases fell under the jurisdiction of the Postal Service inspector’s office. He immediately referred the case to the Postal Service inspector’s office and discontinued his investigation.

The department alleged Tranquilla should have completed a report under the circumstances. Yet, the department could point to no rule, regulation, or even past practice requiring Tranquilla to do so. The arbitrator concluded that Tranquilla was not required to complete a report after turning the case over to the Postal Service inspector’s office.

The Price Case: By now the reader may be wondering why the department tried to terminate a 20-year veteran based upon allegations with no evidence to support them. Only the sheriff of Trinity County can answer that question. Yet, this entire Internal Affairs investigation started the Price case.

In this case the department alleged that Tranquilla committed perjury while testifying at a preliminary hearing. Specifically, the department alleged that Tranquilla lied when he testified that he had prepared a report when in fact, according to the department, he had not.

Price was a parolee who came under investigation for being in possession of a handgun. When Price’s parole officer interviewed him, Tranquilla served as a backup officer. The parole officer interviewed Price and Tranquilla listened to the interview. Tranquilla did not participate in the interview, but he took notes, as was his custom. Price was taken into custody and charged with violating his parole by being in possession of a handgun. The next day, Tranquilla wrote a two-page summary of his involvement in the arrest of Price.

Several months later the district attorney subpoenaed Tranquilla to testify at Price’s preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the defense attorney asked Tranquilla the following questions. His answers follow:

Did you prepare a report? I have since prepared a report, yes.

And where is that? It’s in my office.

Has it been submitted to the District Attorney’s office? No, it has not.

Do you plan to submit it to the District Attorney’s office? Yes.

Based on this series of questions and answers the sheriff concluded Tranquilla had committed perjury when he made the statement “I have since prepared a report, yes.”

At hearing, the testimony of Sheriff Paul Schmidt was very revealing. The sheriff testified that he terminated Tranquilla because he lied while under oath at the Price preliminary hearing. When asked what the lie was, the sheriff responded that Tranquilla made a false statement when he stated he had prepared a report. When asked why it was a false statement since Tranquilla did write a two-page summary of the arrest of Price, the Sheriff answered, “What he prepared was not a proper police report.”

The arbitrator found that the appellant did not lie under oath. The arbitrator found that the sheriff terminated Tranquilla based on the sheriff’s opinion that the document Tranquilla prepared was not “a proper police report.” The arbitrator found that Tranquilla did prepare a report and truthfully answered the questions at the preliminary hearing.

It is interesting to note that in the Price Case, Tranquilla’s situation was aggravated by the opinion of a deputy district attorney that Tranquilla may have created a “Brady Issue” by the way he testified at the Price preliminary hearing. The district attorney and all other deputy DAs did not agree that Tranquilla created a Brady issue. Brady v. Maryland requires the prosecution to inform a criminal defendant of any exculpatory evidence, including any prior sustained acts of dishonesty by officers who may testify.

The arbitrator also noted that the termination of Tranquilla could not be upheld in part because Tranquilla had a good employment record with the department and had recently received a number of favorable performance evaluations. Tranquilla presented evidence at hearing that the sheriff had attempted to get Tranquilla’s sergeants to downgrade a pending performance evaluation while the IA investigation was ongoing. Both sergeants refused to change the performance evaluation and rated Tranquilla as “outstanding” in his performance.

The Department Files A Writ of Mandate: Even though the arbitrator ordered Tranquilla back to work, the county and the department were not ready to accept him back just yet. The county filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate under California Code of Civil Procedure §1094.5. The county requested that the Superior Court overturn the arbitrator’s decision and uphold the department’s original termination of Tranquilla. Superior Court Judge Balavage presided over the Writ hearing and, in a terse ruling from the bench, denied the county’s Petition for Writ of Mandate.

The Writ of Mandate filed by the county was totally without merit because the parties had agreed that the arbitrator’s decision would be final and binding. The affect of binding arbitration is that the arbitrator’s decision is truly final. Neither party may appeal to the Superior Court under almost all circumstances. Nevertheless, the county filed the Writ of Mandate and delayed Tranquilla’s reinstatement for approximately six months. Fortunately, Judge Balavage denied the county’s Petition for Writ of Mandate and awarded Tranquilla full back pay and back benefits. Tranquilla has now collected full back pay and back benefits in a case that, in retrospect, can only be described as an abuse of the sheriff’s authority to discipline members of the department.

Epilogue: The termination of Tranquilla is a frightening reminder of how the powers of police administrators and managers can be abused. Tranquilla was a 20-year veteran of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Department. Yet, for reasons that only the sheriff could disclose, the department tried to end Tranquilla’s career on allegations of misconduct that could only be described as ridiculous. What this case really came down to was the sheriff concluded (at least in his own mind) that Tranquilla lied when he testified at the Price preliminary hearing that he had prepared a report. Tranquilla had in fact prepared a report, but that was not good enough for the sheriff. As the sheriff testified, it was not a “proper police report”. The sheriff manufactured a petty semantic misunderstanding into allegations of perjury. For those of you who do not think that sheriffs or chiefs would abuse their authority so extravagantly, take note of Deputy Tranquilla’s case.

Tranquilla has since retired from the department and now works full time as a labor representative for United Public Employees, California, Local 792, in Redding.

About the Author: Paul Q. Goyette is the managing partner of the law firm of Goyette & Associates that specializes the representation of public safety employee associations. Goyette & Associates has offices in Sacramento, Redding and Modesto.

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