In Steinert v. City of Covina, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2006 WL 2875802, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Oct. 11, 2006), a California Court of Appeal considered the case of a police officer who was terminated for misconduct after a superior discovered she had lied during a routine conversation when the superior did not suspect the misconduct. The officer claimed that because the conversation helped lead to her termination, it violated the procedures of the Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights Act (“Act”).
The Court ruled that the terms of the Act apply only when an officer is being interrogated about suspected wrongdoing. Therefore her rights were not violated when she was terminated following the conversation with her superior which occurred before wrongdoing was suspected.
Stephanie Steinert was a police officer for the City of Covina. During a vandalism investigation, she conducted a records search on a suspect and incorrectly designated the search as a training exercise.
When her supervisor, Sergeant John Curley, learned of the incorrect designation, he informed Steinert that she had mislabeled the search and advised her on the correct procedure. Curley then asked Steinert if, following the search, she had disclosed any confidential information about the suspect to the victim of the vandalism and Steinert replied that she had not.
During a routine audit of the case in which the police department seeks comments from the public on officers’ conduct, the reporter of the vandalism replied that Steinert had in fact disclosed confidential information. The discovery that Steinert had made a false statement to her superior led to an internal affairs investigation which in turn resulted in her dismissal.
Steinert filed a lawsuit asking the trial court to suppress her statement to Curley since it was elicited during a conversation that led to punitive action and therefore violated the protections guaranteed her by the Act. The trial court denied her request and Steinert appealed.
The Court reviewed the language of the Act, which establishes procedures for the interrogation of officers who are “under investigation and subjected to interrogation” by a commanding officer. The Act, however, specifically does not apply to an interrogation “in the normal course of duty, counseling, instruction, or informal verbal admonishment by, or other unplanned contact with, a supervisor or any kind of public safety officer.” That exclusion clearly applied in this case, the Court ruled.
When Curley first spoke to Steinert about the search, the Court said, it was not with any intent to punish or discipline her, but merely to correct her erroneous labeling of the search and ensure that she knew the proper procedure. At the time, he knew of no facts that led him to believe the search was improper or that confidential information had been disclosed. As such, his questioning Steinert as to whether she had disclosed confidential information was not an interrogation subject to the protections of the Act.
The Court ruled that the trial court had correctly refused to suppress the evidence and the judgment was affirmed.
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