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Palos Verdes Estates D.A.R.E. Officer Exonerated of Theft, Dishonesty

Posted on Tuesday, July 01, 2003 at 12:00PM

Sharen Albrecht had worked in law enforcement for 20 years. Medically retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, she had tried her luck in the private sector, but didn’t feel at home. Deep down, she was still a cop and wanted to serve her community. So, she took a job as a non-sworn community relations officer with the Anaheim Police Department. But when the city of Palos Verdes offered her a position with their department as the community services officer and D.A.R.E. officer, she jumped at the opportunity.

For several years things went well, until she became injured in December 2000. Albrecht filed a worker’s compensation claim with the city. In April 2001, Albrecht received a letter from the worker’s compensation insurance carrier accepting her disability claim. The letter was made out to Sharen Albrecht. The letter had been mailed to Sharen Albrecht. Inadvertently enclosed with the letter, however, was a check from the insurance carrier to the city of Palos Verdes. Albrecht glanced at the letter, but did not read it closely. She took the check made out to the city and, mistakenly thinking it was made out to her (because it was identical to other settlement checks), she deposited it in her bank account. The teller did not catch the mistake. Neither did Albrecht.

That night, Albrecht read the letter from the insurance carrier closely. Now confused as to whom the check was actually for, she did just what the letter instructed her to do should she have a question, she called her worker’s compensation attorney. Her attorney, and later her attorney’s assistant, told her not to worry about it, that overdrafts and mistaken payments occur routinely in worker’s compensation claims. “It’ll be taken off the back end of the settlement,” was the advice she was given. She relied on her attorney’s advice.

When the department got wind that Albrecht cashed a check made payable to the city, her 20-plus years in law enforcement went out the window. After an IA investigation in which her statement was not tape recorded (the tape did not work), in which she was given only 15 minutes to seek representation (she opted for some advice from a sergeant, given the circumstances), the department sat on the case for almost a year, doing nothing. The department never spoke to her attorney to see if she was, in fact, told not to worry about depositing the check. It claimed that the worker’s compensation attorney was ducking their calls, but the record showed that they tried calling over a six day period after a year of doing nothing on the case, and that Albrecht’s attorney returned their calls on four occasions.

It didn’t matter, though. Her reputation for honesty faded into obscurity. What most reasonable people would write off as an honest mistake, the department saw as theft, embezzlement and dishonesty. The department promptly terminated Albrecht.

She appealed, and at the appeal hearing was represented by attorney Michael Schwartz, a litigator with Silver, Hadden & Silver. Schwartz pointed out that the investigator opined in his report that it was impossible to tell if, when Albrecht deposited the check, she knew the check was not hers or had simply made an honest mistake. Under cross-examination, he also had to admit that he did nothing for almost a year on the case, and only tried to at the 11 hour when his attorney advised him it would be a good idea. Schwartz argued that if anyone should have some explaining to do, all things considered, it was the department for running roughshod over Albrecht’s rights, her reputation and her future.

The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission hearing officer agreed. The hearing officer found that Albrecht had earned a reputation for honesty in both law enforcement and her private life, and had acted reasonably under all the circumstances of this case. Her termination was, the hearing officer concluded, unwarranted. The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission concurred, and ordered Albrecht reinstated with full back pay and benefits. Exonerated and vindicated, and now retired, Albrecht looks forward to recovering from her injuries, raising her son and enjoying the fruits of what has been a long career serving her community.

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