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Superior Court Overturns County Board, Reinstates Tulare County Sergeant

Posted on Monday, September 01, 2003 at 12:00PM
Posted by Barry J. Bennett, Esq.

You would think after 15 years with no discipline that a sheriff’s sergeant in Tulare County would have been forgiven a minor error in judgment, but that is not the way things work. A Superior Court recently overturned the findings of a county panel, and directed the reinstatement of Tulare County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tony Hallum.

The sequence of events began when a dispatcher informed Hallum of a county ordinance pertaining to the placing of signs in locations where English was not the primary language. Not having the ordinance in front of him, Hallum told two bar owners, with a predominantly Spanish-speaking clientele, that there was an ordinance they should read about how signs were to be posted where English was not the primary language spoken in the establishment. The sergeant gave the bar owners what he thought the ordinance required, but told them to look it up.

The problem arose when the son of the bar owner, complained that Hallum and his deputies were harassing him and his clientele, because of their race, sexual orientation, or some other characteristic. The matter was investigated. Eventually, Hallum realized that he had read the ordinance wrong, which he told his supervisor, and the supervisor acknowledged that Hallum was sincere in his misunderstanding of the ordinance, and had no motive to do harm to the bar owners.

As it turned out, Hallum was also being investigated by the department regarding an allegation that he had directed his officers to prepare false police reports. All officers under his supervision were interviewed, and the allegation proved to be false.

Nonetheless, the department terminated Hallum for alleged dishonesty to his supervisor about whether he had specifically told the bar owners that they might or might not be cited if they did not post the signs in question. The department also based the termination on a telephone call that Hallum made to a deputy, who was not involved in the bar investigation, allegedly because Hallum had violated the IA admonition not to discuss the case with anyone.

Under local rules, Hallum’s choices were to appeal the termination to an administrative law judge appointed through the Office of Administrative Hearings, or to an Administrative Review Panel, consisting of two people appointed by the county, and one appointed by Hallum. Because the association’s history with the Office of Administrative Hearings had been terrible, and because the case against Hallum seemed so blatantly lacking, Hallum and his attorney, this author, elected to proceed in front of the Administrative Review Panel.

At the administrative hearing, neither the bar owner nor her son could give a coherent version of what it was that Hallum had told them. The county’s key witness, a deputy who had been present at the scene but was no longer working for Tulare County, could not remember whether Hallum had used the term “citation” in describing what might happen to the bar owners. The deputy whom Hallum had called admitted that he was not part of the investigation, which Hallum was admonished from discussing, and the county’s IA officer admitted that Hallum did not know that the deputy he called was involved in another investigation concerning Hallum.

Nonetheless, the panel upheld the termination of Hallum. In doing so, however, they fundamentally changed the allegations against him. While the panel admitted that Hallum’s advice to the bar owners was well-intentioned if mistaken, they accused him of lying to his superior officer about whether he had used the word “citation” to the bar owners, relying on the testimony of the deputy who had been present. With regard to Hallum’s telephone call to the other deputy, they found that Hallum had caused that deputy to violate his admonition not to discuss the investigation.

The matter then went before Superior Court Judge Paul Vortmann, who had no difficulty overturning the panel’s findings, finding that their decision was not supported by the evidence. Since the deputy’s testimony about the use of “citation” was inconsistent, and he admitted that he had not heard all of the conversation, the court could not support the finding that Hallum had lied. Furthermore, with regard to the charge that Hallum had compromised the admonition that the other deputy had been given, the court found that that was not contained in the final notice of dismissal, and that due process would have been denied had Hallum been terminated over an allegation which was never made. Because the court found that Hallum’s advice to the bar owners was ill-advised, since it did cause them some concern and turned out to be based on a misinterpretation of the ordinance, which Hallum had not read, the court ordered the matter remanded for determination of a penalty, which the court stated had to be less than termination.

Thus, it is essential to make the possible record in hopes that a Superior Court will distance itself politically from the decision of the hearing panel. In this particular case, the chairman of the hearing panel was the chairman of the board of supervisors, yet the court had no difficulty in overturning the decision, and avoiding what would have been serious violations of due process.

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