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October 1, 2015

Peace Officer’s Termination Upheld Despite Unpaid Leave Status

In a decision issued on September 29, 2015, the Court of Appeal held that a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy can be terminated for off-duty misconduct committed while on unpaid relieved-of-duty status.  Negron v. Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission (County of Los Angeles).

Thomas Negron, an eight-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, had been arrested by the California Highway Patrol for driving while intoxicated and had become belligerent during the traffic stop.  Two months before the DUI arrest, the Department had placed Negron on unpaid relieved-of-duty status for medical reasons that were not work related.

He eventually pled guilty and received three years of probation.  Following the resulting suspension of his driver’s license, Negron drove to a CHP office to obtain a copy of the original arrest report.  He drove his own car home from the Sheriff’s Department facility, despite instructions from colleagues not to do so due to his suspended license.  Negron later lied to his sergeant about the fact that he drove from the CHP station, telling her that his girlfriend had come to the station to pick him up.
The Department ultimately discharged Negron for violations of the Department’s Manual of Policy and Procedures by driving while intoxicated and with an expired registration, being uncooperative with CHP officers following the stop, subsequently driving with a suspended license, and lying to a supervisor.  Negron appealed, arguing that the Department had no authority to discipline him while he was on relieved-of-duty status and not being paid.  He also claimed statements he made to his sergeant constituted a violation of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA).

A hearing officer recommended that the Civil Service Commission uphold the discharge, citing violations of the Department’s Manual of Policies and Procedures.  The hearing officer also found that the conversation with the sergeant violated Section 3303 of POBRA, because it constituted an interrogation and she failed to provide Negron with the proper procedural safeguards.  However, the order to discharge stood, as the hearing officer refused to exclude Negron’s statements he made during that conversation.  The Civil Service Commission upheld Negron’s termination in June 2013.

Negron subsequently filed a petition for administrative mandamus challenging the Commission’s final order, arguing that a law enforcement officer could not be disciplined while on leave.  A Los Angeles County trial court granted the petition for writ of mandate and ordered that the Commission’s decision to terminate be set aside on the grounds that the Department could not discipline Negron for misconduct when he was unpaid and relieved of duty.

During the appeal, Negron relied on the decision in Garvin v. Chambers (1924) 195 Cal. 212, a case that involved an Oakland police officer who had been suspended without pay while under investigation for a violation of the National Prohibition Act.  While under suspension, he attempted to meet with his chief with his lawyer present.  When the chief asked the lawyer to leave, Garvin refused and was fired for insubordination.  Subsequently, the Supreme Court found that Garvin could not be fired for insubordination because he was under suspension at the time.
However, the Second Appellate District held that Garvin decision did not apply to Negron’s misconduct.  In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeal determined that Negron could be held accountable for the serious nature of his misconduct regardless of his unpaid status.  The Court noted that, when Negron appeared at the CHP office to obtain a copy of his arrest report, he presented a business card identifying himself as a Sheriff’s Deputy and held himself out as such.  Accordingly, Negron’s conduct brought discredit upon the Department.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that “Negron’s conduct comes squarely within the prohibitions imposed by the Department’s Manual of Policies and Procedures.  Negron’s argument that he was not subject to those prohibitions while relieved of duty is not well taken.”
Takeaway Point:
A Peace Officer can be disciplined for misconduct committed while on unpaid relieved-of-duty status in circumstances where there is a nexus to their law enforcement affiliation.

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