The ACLU of Southern California today announced a landmark victory, overturning a California law allowing police to sue individuals who lodge complaints against them.
The lawsuit challenged California Civil Code ﾌ_47.5, the only law of its kind in the country. This law gave police officers a special right to sue citizens who file complaints of misconduct against them. "This ruling affirms the basic right of all citizens to speak out about police misconduct. The Court has recognized how vital it is to have an open channel of communication between the police and the communities they serve," said ACLU Staff Attorney Daniel Tokaji who argued the case. "No longer will citizens with legitimate complaints against police officers worry that they could lose their life savings or their home because they have the courage to speak out."
The case in which the ruling was made, Gritchen v. Collier, arose from a 1997 incident. Mr. Myron Gritchen was stopped while driving by Long Beach police officer Gordon Collier. Mr. Gritchen believed the officer had treated him in a discourteous manner, and filed a complaint with the Long Beach Police Department. Later that year Officer Collier threatened to sue Mr. Gritchen for filing the complaint. "The ACLU has always contended that citizen complaints are protected speech guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution," said John Crew, Director of the ACLU's Police Practices Project. "We challenged the legality of California's Civil Code ﾌ_ 47.5 because it singled out citizen complaints for disfavored treatment. Under this statute, police, but no other public officials, were allowed to bring defamation claims based on citizen complaints. Clearly, the court agreed with our argument that this law was unconstitutional."
Judge Gary L. Taylor of the United States District Court (Central District) determined that ﾌ_ 47.5 violates the First Amendment, by specially targeting speech critical of peace officers. The statute did not serve any compelling governmental interest and violated the free speech and petition clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The ACLU's Tokaji added, "Recent events involving the Los Angeles Police Department only serve to highlight the need for law enforcement officials to be held accountable. This ruling confirms what we have long known: that it is in the best interest of all concerned to keep the complaint process open and free of intimidation."