Police Officers Retain The Right To Sue

Posted on Wednesday, August 01, 2001 at 12:00PM

On June 13, 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restored the right of California peace officers to defend their good names in the face of defamatory complaints filed against them. The court unanimously upheld the right of Long Beach Police Officer Gordon Collier to bring suit against a complaining party under California Civil Code §47.5. The case, handled by Legal Defense Fund panel attorney, Larry Roberts, from the Law Office of James E. Trott, reversed a previous order from the District Court.

On April 16, 1998, Collier stopped and issued a traffic citation to Myron Gritchen for speeding. Gritchen then filed a citizen’s complaint with the Long Beach Police Department, alleging Collier was discourteous and argumentative and that his breath smelled of alcohol. The department, in its investigation, interviewed other individuals contacted by Collier, just before and just after the time of the Gritchen stop. Nobody smelled any odor of an alcoholic beverage on Collier’s breath. The department cleared Collier of all charges.

Collier then proposed a suit under Civil Code §47.5 which grants police officers the right to sue for defamation against their accusers if the complaint was false, and was made with knowledge that it was false and that it was made with spite, hatred, or ill will. The ACLU took up Gritchen’s cause and brought suit in the United States District Court to enjoin Collier from suing. At the District Court level Gritchen prevailed. The lower court, found the statute unconstitutional in that it treated citizen complaints against police officers differently from complaints against all other government officials.

The appellate court didn’t even reach the substantive issue. Gritchen argued that a federal issue was raised in that Collier, a police officer, was acting “under color of law”. The court ruled that while Collier was acting under color of law when he made the traffic stop he was not doing so when he proposed the lawsuit against Gritchen. It also found that the police department had nothing to do with Collier bringing the action, and nothing to gain by his doing so. Finally, the court determined that protecting one’s reputation was personal in nature and not state action. Accordingly, if Collier was not acting under color of law he could not have deprived Gritchen of a constitutional right, and the court dismissed the action for Gritchen’s failure to state a claim and for lack of federal jurisdiction.

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