Showing posts with label police. Show all posts
Showing posts with label police. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Police reform shines light on disciplinary records

CC0 Pixabay via picryl
A favorable reform to follow the police protest movement of recent years, stemming in particular from the killing of George Floyd, has been transparency around police disciplinary dispositions.

There is room for disagreement over what police reform should look like. I'm of the opinion that it costs society more to have police managing economic and social problems, such as homelessness and mental health, than it would cost to tackle those problems directly with appropriately trained personnel. I wouldn't "defund" police per se, but I would allocate public resources in efficient proportion to the problems they're supposed to remedy. We might not need as much prison infrastructure if we spent smarter on education, job training, and recreation.

Regardless of where one comes down on such questions, there is no down-side to transparency around police discipline. Police unions have cried privacy, a legitimate interest, especially in the early stages of allegation and investigation. But when official disciplinary action results, privacy should yield to accountability. 

Freedom-of-information (FOI) law is well experienced at balancing personnel-record access with personal-privacy exemption. Multistate FOI norms establish the flexible principle that a public official's power and authority presses down on the access side. Because police have state power to deprive persons of liberty and even life, privacy must yield to access more readily than it might for other public employees.

In September 2023, Stateline, citing the National Conference on State Legislatures, reported that "[b]etween May 2020 and April 2023, lawmakers in nearly every state and [D.C.] introduced almost 500 bills addressing police investigations and discipline, including providing access to disciplinary records." Sixty-five enacted bills then included transparency measures in California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York.

The Massachusetts effort has come to fruition in online publication of a remarkable data set. Legislation in 2020 created the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission. On the POST Commission website, one can download a database of 4,570 law enforcement disciplinary dispositions going back 30 years. There is a form to request correction of errors. The database, at the time of this writing last updated December 22, 2023, can be downloaded in a table by officer last name or by law enforcement agency, or in a CSV file of raw data.

The data are compelling. There are plenty of minor matters that can be taken at face value. For example, one Springfield police officer was ordered to "Retraining" for "Improper firearm usage or storage." I don't see that as impugning the officer, rather as an appropriately modest corrective and a positive for Springfield police. Many dispositions similarly suggest a minor matter and proportional response, for example, "Written Warning or Letter of Counseling" for "conduct unbecoming"/"Neglect of Duty."

Then there are serious matters. The data indicate termination of a police officer after multiple incidents in 2021, including "DRINKING ON DUTY, PRESCRIPTION PILL ABUSE, AND MARIJUANA USE," as well as "POSING IN A HITLER SALUTE." Again, it's a credit to the police department involved that the officer is no longer employed there. Imagine if such disciplinary matters were secreted in the interest of personal privacy, and there were not a terminal disposition.

The future of the POST Commission is to be determined. It's being buffeted by forces in both directions. Apropos of my observation above, transparency is not a cure-all and does not remedy the problem of police being charged with responsibility for social issues beyond the purview of criminal justice.

Lisa Thurau of the Cambridge-based Strategies for Youth told GBH in May 2023 that clarity is still needed around the role and authority of police in interacting with students in schools. Correspondingly, she worried whether the POST Commission, whose membership includes a chaplain and a social worker, is adequately funded to fulfill its broad mandate, which includes police training on deescalation.

Pushing the other way, the POST Commission was sued in 2022, GBH reported, by police unions and associations that alleged, ironically, secret rule-making in violation of state open meetings law. Certainly I agree that the commission should model compliance in rule-making. But I suspect that the union strategy is simply obstruction: strain commission resources and impede accountability however possible. Curious that the political left supports both police unions and police protestors.

WNYC has online a superb 50-state survey of police-disciplinary-record access law, classifying the states as "confidential," "limited," or "public." Massachusetts is among 15 states in the "limited" category. My home state of Rhode Island and my bar jurisdictions of Maryland and D.C. are among the 24 jurisdictions in the "confidential" category.

"Sunshine State" Florida is among 12 states in the "public" category. In a lawsuit by the Tallahassee Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously in November 2023 that Marsy's Law, a privacy law enacted to protect crime victims, does not shield the identity of police officers in misconduct matters. (E.g., Tallahassee Democrat.)

Monday, May 22, 2023

DA cannot shield officer, EMT identities from state FOIA disclosure, court rules in fatal police shooting

A Massachusetts Superior Court in March ordered the district attorney to release investigative records to the family of a man killed by police.

The privacy of public officials in the technology era has strained conventional accountability rationales for transparency. Since the advent of access to public information as a democratic norm, public officials and public figures have decried purported invasions of their privacy. The very notion of privacy in modern tort law, for better and worse, traces its roots to precisely such whinging in the late nineteenth century. Access usually prevailed.

Yet in the technological era, privacy complaints have gained new currency, and some of it is legitimate. Even, or perhaps especially, in the intensely emotional context of high-profile police shootings, interests are amped up on both sides. Of course, victims and families demand understanding and accountability, and they are entitled to it. At the same time, it's harder than ever to be a police officer, and passions that expose public servants and their families to harassment and threats pose a genuine policy problem. 

The two sides collided in Massachusetts over the death of Anthony (Antone) Harden in Fall River in 2021. The 30-year-old was shot twice and killed by police in his bedroom. Police investigators concluded that Harden had used a steak knife to attempt to stab the shooter's partner in the neck and head. A district attorney (DA) investigation in 2022 ruled the homicide justified.

Surveillance video shows officer arriving at Harden's apartment.
With the final report, Bristol County DA Thomas M. Quinn III released hundreds of pages of records, including video, audio, and photographs. But there was much that the DA did not release in response to a freedom-of-information request by Harden's brother, Eric Mack, an attorney. Though the family knew, and the lawsuit revealed publicly, the names of the involved officers by the time of the DA's report, the DA would not disclose their names.

The DA also withheld other records identifying responding personnel, including video interviews with emergency medical technicians. WBUR reported that the EMTs said they did not see the steak knife that police said necessitated lethal force.

Mack sued the DA under the state public records law, and the Superior Court in March granted his request for records on all counts. With regard to the identities of police and EMTs involved, the court wrote:

Upon balancing the rights of the parties, the public's need to access against the privacy rights at issues here, I find that the equities favor disclosure. The public officials here are not acting in the capacity of private citizens but in the course of their duties. Plaintiff has a right to have a full understanding of the facts leading to his brother's death including the identities of the public officials involved to ensure accountability and transparency. The failure to disclose this information would raise questions amongst the public about why this information was being withheld, which would only serve to undermine the integrity of the law enforcement departments involved and those reviewing their conduct. Any right to privacy that a public official might have under these circumstances, which is de minimis under the circumstances presented here, is overwhelmed by the public's right to know.

Before the resolution of the public records case, in January, the Harden family threatened Fall River with a $50m lawsuit for Harden's death, if the records were not released.

The case is Mack v. Office of the District Attorney, No. 2284-CV-00248 (Mass. Super. Ct. Suffolk County Mar. 6, 2023), decided by Justice James Budreau.

Friday, May 19, 2023

NYPD seizes adorable dog, person too, in retaliation for video-recording in public, attorney-plaintiff alleges

A New York legal aid attorney was arrested, along with her dog, when she started video-recording police, and then she sued for civil rights violation.

Harvey (Compl. ¶ 36)
The NYPD messed with the wrong person. As the complaint tells it, Molly Griffard, an attorney with the Cop Accountability Project of the Legal Aid Society (Equal Justice Works), was walking her dog, Harvey, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn when "she saw police officers remove a young man from a bodega, and drag him around the corner where they lined him up with other young men against a wall."

Griffard began video-recording with her phone. After she crossed the street at an officer's instruction, she started writing down NYPD car plate numbers. An officer refused to give her his business card upon her request, the complaint alleges. Instead, the officer handcuffed Griffard and arrested her, taking her and Harvey into police custody. She was held at the 79th precinct for eight hours, while Harvey, a nine-year-old Yorkie, was held in the kennel.

Admittedly, what caught my attention in the case was not so much the facts, head-shaking inducing as they are, but the story of Harvey. Journalist Frank G. Runyeon, reporting for Law360, and NBC News 4 New York, also were enchanted.

Griffard and her attorney, David B. Rankin, of Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP, must have been conscious of Harvey's intoxicating adorableness, too, because they included gratuitous glamor shots in the complaint—as I've reproduced here. 

Harvey (Compl. ¶ 20)
At its fringe, the case might be said to implicate animal rights, or at least the rights of owners of domesticated animals. Courts in the United States and elsewhere in the world are coming around to the idea that domesticated animals such as cats and dogs have a value exceeding their market worth as personal property, especially in the area of tort damages when the animals come to harm.

Griffard make no such claim, though, rather using Harvey as evidence to demonstrate her emotional distress at being separated from him and being given no information about his whereabouts while they were held—and, between the lines, to tug at the heartstrings and demonstrate the utter absurdity of her arrest and detainment.

One paragraph of the complaint does allege that seven-pound "Harvey was traumatized by the incident and now takes medication to treat his anxiety disorder." And the count of unreasonable seizure points out that "Harvey missed his dinner."

The case is Griffard v. City of New York, No. 512993/2023 (Sup. Ct. Kings County filed May 2, 2023).

Monday, April 10, 2023

Citizens defeat attack on state transparency law

A bill that would have gutted the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was defeated in committee in the Arkansas House on March 29. A more modest bill amending the open meetings act passed.

My friend Professor Robert Steinbuch testified decisively against the comprehensive HB1726, which read like a wish list of transparency opponents, dismantling one provision after another of the state FOIA. I was there.

Bill sponsor Rep. David Ray presented the bill to the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, though there can be little doubt that the bill was devised by lobbyists such as Arkansas's municipalities or counties. The bill attacked the strongest points of the FOIA that mark differences from state norms, such as Arkansas's short, three-day turnaround and lack of attorney-client privilege.

In fairness, there is room for negotiation on some of these points. An excellent one-time student of mine and Steinbuch's, Deputy Attorney General Ryan Owsley presented the bill alongside Ray. Having long served as opinions counsel, Owsley knows the FOIA well, and he fairly criticized the law for areas in which its well meaning text might be outpaced by practical realities. For example, record custodians say they're too often unduly stressed by the three-day deadline, especially when redactions are routinely required from today's typically voluminous electronic records rife with exempt personally identifying information.

But the bill proponents claimed too much. They whinged, for example, about record custodians compelled "to violate the law" and place themselves in legal jeopardy. In fact, to my knowledge, no Arkansas judge has ever demanded that custodians respond to requests other than reasonably, notwithstanding the three-day deadline. Like the 20-day deadline of the federal Freedom of Information Act, the three-day deadline is largely notional in practice. Its more salient admonition is that when records are immediately available, they should be provided immediately. A better bill might codify the de facto oversight process for voluminous productions.

Bill proponents moreover obfuscated. They articulated purported horror stories of FOIA abuse amounting to harassment of public officials. But their stories hardly bore out.

One oft repeated claim in the hearing was that a FOIA requester made a request of a school district that would have yielded 800,000 records and taken two years to process. But there was a lot of information missing from this claim.

For starters, no one ever said that the records were produced, only asked for. I could make a request tomorrow for all the records of a school district, and then someone could testify with outrage that a requester demanded millions of records. Neither side is well served by overbreadth. It's not unusual at all for an ordinary-citizen requester to over-ask, and then for a custodian to work with a requester to help narrow the request to what the requester really wants. The two years' labor claim was always made in the conditional tense, so it seems the referenced situation was somehow resolved without a crisis.

Second, no one ever said what medium or format the 800,000 records were in. I once FOIAd the voter rolls for several ZIP codes in Arkansas. If every one of those files was considered a "record," then I FOIAd some million records. But I received them in just a few minutes as a kind election official downloaded the data to a USB stick for me.

Third, no one ever said anything about the content of the 800,000 records. Maybe the request was justified. Journalists in the hearing testified to matters such as the discovery of juvenile abuse through public record requests. If that's what those records revealed, then I say, get to work.

Many police testified in favor of the bill. One police witness complained about requests from the ACLU investigating police conduct. I'm not sure I have a problem with those requests. Remarkably, one police witness complained because a journalist's investigation of a fatal shooting by police determined that the shooting was justified. Was the officer hoping for a different conclusion? Exoneration hardly suggests that the records were ill sought to begin with.

Insofar as the bill sought to tackle points of the FOIA that might benefit from fair-minded reform, the problem with HB1726 was procedural as well as substantive. Surely as a matter of political strategy, the bill was introduced late in the session, when legislative committees are overworked—the instant hearing went well into the night—and tend to be less scrutinizing of what they pass.

The bill was introduced on a Monday and immediately came up in committee on Wednesday. It was stunning and telling that so many citizens organized to turned out against the bill so fast. In the interim, the state FOIA advisory body, a legislatively constituted entity that exists for the very purpose of vetting FOIA legislation, obliged the timeline with an emergency meeting on Tuesday. But Rep. Ray was a no-show and complained at the hearing that he had had a conflict. He blamed the advisory group for his timeline.

Disappointingly, HB1726 came to committee with the support of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. A young aid represented the Governor at the hearing, and I could not help but think that he was set up to take the heat. One witness aptly pointed out that transparency is a plank in the state Republican platform. This was not Gov. Sanders's only recent embarrassment.

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Bentley, passed the committee later in the night. HB1610 would set a one-third-of-members threshold to trigger the open meetings act. Like other jurisdictions, Arkansas has struggled with the threshold question. To the aggravation of municipality lobbyists, the state supreme court has held that the act is triggered by even a two-person meeting if transparency would be subverted.

The bill hardly got a full hearing in the committee. Because of the late hour after the HB1726 debacle, the committee limited witnesses on each side to 15 minutes in sum. But they testified in the order they signed up. So time ran out on the opposition side upon citizen witnesses who were not as effective as advocates such as Professor Steinbuch and attorney Joey McCutchen.

I dared think that HB1726 was a mere smokescreen to push through HB1610. But HB1726 was such a disaster that it's hard to believe so much thought went into a concerted strategy.

Professor Steinbuch is author of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (LexisNexis 8th ed. 2022). I was a co-author of the preceding fourth, fifth, and sixth editions. The book originated with Professor John Watkins in 1988.

Below is the hearing on both bills on March 29. The hearing is remarkable for putting on exhibit the wide range of constituencies that support and oppose transparency in state and local government, and their reasons.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Reversal in eldercare case highlights limits of qualified immunity, low injury threshold of intentional torts

Boston police officer assists an elderly pedestrian in 2014.
(Alex Klavens CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)
A dispute over elder care occasioned treatment of qualified immunity and a range of tort theories by the Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday.

Gallagher v. South Shore Hospital arose from an apparently mismanaged effort to investigate and redress a report of elder abuse; the report proved unfounded. The plaintiff caretaker and elder man alleged that a police officer and state agent entered their home without sufficient suspicion or warrant and removed the man from the home, and that a hospital then held and tested the man for five days against her and his will.

Most of the court's opinion comprised blow-by-blow facts and the Fourth Amendment analysis. However, the court opined as well on a range of common law tort claims against the defendants: a police officer, a state-contracted elder service agent, and South Shore Hospital, Inc., for trespass, false imprisonment, and battery. The police officer defended on grounds of qualified immunity, inter alia.

In proceedings on various motions, two trial court judges awarded summary judgment to all defendants. The trial courts held the state actors protected by qualified immunity and the tort claims flawed.

In the estimation of the Appeals Court, the trial courts erred. The Appeals Court reversed and remanded as to all defendants, finding that live questions of fact precluded the summary judgments. In my estimation, the error on qualified immunity was informative, and the errors on tort theories were egregious.

In articulating the qualified immunity theory, the police defendant and eldercare agent pointed to a concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh in a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case, Caniglia v. Strom, in which the Court held unanimously that a warrantless home entry and firearm seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. The Appeals Court explained:

[Officer] Pompeo argues that the facts at bar are similar to the example of an elder welfare check that Justice Kavanaugh described in his concurring opinion in Caniglia. In his example, "an elderly man is uncharacteristically absent from Sunday church services and repeatedly fails to answer his phone throughout the day and night. A concerned relative calls the police and asks the officers to perform a wellness check." Justice Kavanaugh stated that "[o]f course," in those circumstances, the officers may enter the home. Pompeo argues that she reasonably thought [elder plaintiff] LaPlante was injured or in imminent danger on June 25 because no one responded to the doorbell, knocks, or telephone call, and because [caretaker] Gallagher had left LaPlante in the car with strangers two days earlier.

The trial court found these facts to constitute the requisite exigency to enter the home. The Appeals Court disagreed.

The facts in this case are nothing like the hypothetical Justice Kavanaugh described. The implication of the hypothetical is that the elderly man lives alone. LaPlante did not. Moreover, Gallagher and LaPlante were not out of touch or nonresponsive, as was the elder in Justice Kavanaugh's hypothetical. Pompeo and another elder care worker had seen LaPlante two days earlier ... and his appearance was not a cause for concern....

Further, even if Pompeo could see LaPlante on the couch [through a window], neither he nor Gallagher had any obligation to answer the door or respond to the knock. "When law enforcement officers who are not armed with a warrant knock on a door, they do no more than any private citizen might do. And whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak." Kentucky v. King (U.S. 2011). A jury could find that Gallagher's lack of response to a knock on the door when she was not expecting visitors, and her absence from the room in which LaPlante was sleeping, did not give rise to a reasonable belief by Pompeo that LaPlante was unattended and suffering an emergency.

In an age in which the public is increasingly skeptical of police qualified immunity, the analysis is refreshing for taking seriously the doctrine's objective check on police perception. The likely failure of qualified immunity here leaves the state defendants vulnerable to the civil rights and tort claims on remand.

On the tort claims, the trial courts erred egregiously in dismissing for perceived want of injury. My first-semester, 1L Torts students can tell you that none of trespass, false imprisonment, nor battery requires physical injury, in the sense of impact. These intentional torts all balance a higher culpability state with a lower injury threshold. The lower threshold rests upon the theory that tort objectives such as preserving the peace and averting vigilantism justify recognition of insults to personal integrity or honor, even in the absence of physical or pecuniary loss. The notion is as old as the Roman law of iniuria.

As to trespass, the Appeals Court opined, quoting Massachusetts high court precedents, "It has long been the 'general rule' in this Commonwealth that 'possession of real estate is sufficient to enable the parties in possession to maintain an action against a stranger for interfering with that possession.' Proof of injury is not required; 'the action is founded merely on the possession.'"

Similarly, false imprisonment is accomplished by the plaintiff's awareness of confinement, and battery by an "offensive," that is, non-consensual nor justified-by-social-contract, touching of the plaintiff. In false imprisonment, "[i]t is enough if a person's personal liberty is restrained," the Appeals Court opined. And even if the elder man, not legally competent at the time, "was not aware of his confinement, Gallagher, his proxy, was." The court further relied on, while expressly not adopting, similar sentiments in the Second Restatement of Torts.

On each theory, the plaintiff is permitted to prove compensable loss above and beyond the minimal, prerequisite condition of injury. The caretaker alleged that the elder man in fact deteriorated physically while in hospital care, evidenced by an enlarged bedsore and diminished mobility. And the facts established to date indicate that the elder man had been subject to blood and urine testing in the hospital without the consent of the caretaker, his only proxy: a more-than-de-minimis, physical insult.

The same reasoning that unwound qualified immunity negated any defense of emergency on which the trial courts relied to dismiss the tort claims as a matter of law. And the hospital claimed no emergency over the elder man's five-day residency, such as would have justified failing to seek the caretaker's consent.

Finally, I was struck by a footnote the court dropped that speaks not only to the sad facts of this case, but to the broader context of our present, vigorous public policy discussion about the role of police in society and our infrastructure for social services, such as physical and mental healthcare. The court lamented:

[The eldercare agent who precipitated investigation and police involvement,] Bessette[,] and Gallagher were strangers to one another. Perhaps if Bessette had agreed to assist Gallagher by sitting with LaPlante for an hour while Gallagher did grocery shopping, she could have accomplished her investigatory purpose—allowing her to speak with LaPlante alone— and we might not have a case at all. Pasqualone v. Gately (Mass. 1996) (if officer had asked gun owner to voluntarily turn over his weapons after his license was revoked rather than demand them with considerable show of force, we might have a different case).

Recently, my wife and I read in the New York Times Magazine about the "viral nightmare" that exploded at Arizona State University from students' feud over the "multicultural safe space," fueled in no small part by the university's hyper-formalist response.

"If only someone had sat them down and made them listen to each other ... ," my wife sighed.

The instant case is Gallagher v. South Shore Hospital, Inc., No. 21-P-207 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 6, 2022) (temporary posting). Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Sullivan.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Police negligence suit against BLM organizer goes ahead after La. Supreme Court greenlights duty

BLM protest in Baton Rouge in 2015
(Alisdare Hickson CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr)
A lawsuit against Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson lives on since the Louisiana Supreme Court opined in March that state law allows imposition of a duty in tort law and does not preclude liability to police under the firefighter rule.

I wrote about the Mckesson case in April and November 2020. In the case's winding appellate disposition, the U.S. Supreme Court faulted the Fifth Circuit for jumping the gun on Mckesson's First Amendment defense and entreated the court to certify questions of state tort law to Louisiana.

It is not alleged that Mckesson himself threw any projectile at police, so the defense asserted that the intentional criminal action of a third party supervened in the chain of causation between Mckesson's organizing and police officer injury. But the Louisiana Supreme Court was unsympathetic, characterizing the pleadings as alleging related criminal conduct by Mckesson. The court reasoned:

Under the allegations of fact set forth in the plaintiff’s federal district court petition, it could be found that Mr. Mckesson’s actions, in provoking a confrontation with Baton Rouge police officers through the commission of a crime (the blocking of a heavily traveled highway, thereby posing a hazard to public safety), directly in front of police headquarters, with full knowledge that the result of similar actions taken by BLM in other parts of the country resulted in violence and injury not only to citizens but to police, would render Mr. Mckesson liable for damages for injuries, resulting from these activities, to a police officer compelled to attempt to clear the highway of the obstruction.

The court also rejected Mckesson's the firefighter-rule defense. The common law rule (in Louisiana, "the professional rescuer's doctrine"), not universally recognized, ordinarily disallows recovery by emergency responders for injury incurred in the course of the job, upon the theory that the job is what the responder is compensated for, and responsible parties should not be deterred from summoning emergency response.

The court took the occasion of the Mckesson case to ponder whether the firefighter rule survived the statutory adoption of comparative fault in Louisiana. The rule embodies a form of implied assumption of risk, the court reasoned. Louisiana is not a pure civil law jurisdiction, but the courts rely heavily on statute in accordance with the civil law tradition. Though the legislature left the details of comparative-fault adoption to the courts to work out, the high court acknowledged, the lack of any explicit recognition of the firefighter rule left it displaced.

The case in Louisiana is Doe v. Mckesson, No. 2021-CQ-00929 (La. Mar. 25, 2022). The case in the Fifth Circuit is No. 17-30864.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Horn-blowing law survives First Amendment challenge

Image by allispossible.org.uk CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A citation for unreasonable horn-blowing is not defective under the First Amendment, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in February.

The appellant sought relief from a civil motor vehicle infraction carrying a $55 fine. The court set out the facts:

On October 16, 2017, police officers were working as part of a detail as a construction site was being set up at an intersection at the Middlesex Turnpike, "a busy public way in Burlington." This was "causing major traffic delays." [Appellant] pulled into the intersection, "grew impatient," honked his vehicle's horn, and yelled at the officers. "This startled construction workers." [Appellant] drove closer to one of the police officers, honked his vehicle's horn, and insulted the officer. The officer stopped [appellant] and issued him a citation for fifty-five dollars for unnecessarily honking his horn.

The pertinent Massachusetts statute declares: "No person operating a motor vehicle shall sound a bell, horn or other device, nor in any manner operate such motor vehicle so as to make a harsh, objectionable or unreasonable noise." The appellant challenged the statute as unconstitutionally vague and unconstitutionally overbroad facially and as applied.

In First Amendment vagueness analysis, the court explained, a statutory text may be informed by "reasonable construction." And this statute is informed, the court reasoned, by the administrative guidance of the Massachusetts Driver's Manual, a document publication of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The manual specifies:

Use your horn to:

  • Warn pedestrians or other drivers of possible trouble
  • Avoid crashes

Do not use your horn to:

  • Show anger or complain about other drivers’ mistakes
  • Try to get a slower driver to move faster
  • Try to get other vehicles moving in a traffic jam

That guidance "comports with the common understanding of what uses of motor vehicle horns are objectionable," the court wrote, so "is not unconstitutionally vague."

The statute also was not substantially overbroad, facially or as applied, the court concluded.

The appellant looked to court decisions in Washington and Oregon striking laws against horn blowing as facially overbroad. But those laws were broader and swept into their prohibitions the use of horns for purposes unrelated to traffic, namely, expressive use in protests. The Massachusetts law pertains only in traffic scenarios.

The court rejected what it characterized as the appellant's after-the-fact effort to characterize his horn-blowing as a protest against police to articulate an as-applied overbreadth challenge. "Horn honking may be expressive when used as a form of protected protest," the court acknowledged. But that's not the same as appellant "honk[ing] his vehicle's horn out of impatience to show his anger at the police officer for creating a traffic jam."

Fine line, but I know it because I see it.

The case is Burlington Police Department v. Hagopian, No. 20-P-1371 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022). Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the unanimous opinion of the panel.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Judge excoriates city in public records row

Worcester, Mass., City Hall
(Mass. Office of Travel & Tourism CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr)
In a remarkable opinion in January 2022, the Massachusetts Superior Court excoriated the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, for failure to comply with a newspaper's public records request investigating police misconduct.

In 2018, GateHouse Media, owner of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and a subsidiary of Gannett, filed a Massachusetts freedom of information act (FOIA) request for files related to investigations of Worcester police in civil rights matters. The Telegram's interest was spurred by Worcester attorney Hector E. Pineiro, who was upset by police interaction with his son.

The city resisted production of the records because, it argued, they were part of ongoing litigation involving police officers. The Massachusetts FOIA has no litigation exemption per se, but officials shield some records under the deliberative process exemption, relating to policy positions still in development. The city grossly over-relied on that strategy, the court concluded in June 2021 after a rare FOIA trial.

GateHouse Media persisted with its case even after shaking lose the records, demanding that the city be permanently enjoined from similar baseless argument in the future and be charged with punitive damages. In January, the Superior Court, per Justice Janet Kenton-Walker, substantially sided with GateHouse, finding that the city had acted in bad faith and needlessly protracted the litigation and costs for years.

Not only did the city rely erroneously on the text of statute, Justice Kenton-Walker opined, it "cherry-picked certain language from ... cases, taking it out of context." And the city had an ugly history with the same issue. The court explained:

[T]he court cannot ignore that [the city] originally took [its] position in spite of the fact that the city was one of the parties to, and thus aware of, Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp. v. Chief of Police of Worcester (Mass. App. Ct. 2003). In that case, the Appeals Court held that materials in a "Worcester police department internal affairs file ... compiled during an investigation of a citizen complaint," were public records. That court stated explicitly that "[i]t would be odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny as 'personnel [file] or information' the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence" (emphasis added).

The court declined to award an injunction, reasoning that the threat of litigation should provide sufficient deterrence. "Simply put, the court expects the city to follow the law now and in the future," the judge wrote.

But the court did order the city to pay $5,000 in "punitive damages." That's at the top of a range allowed by state law when public officials act in bad faith. The money goes to the state Public Records Assistance Fund, rather than to the plaintiff.

According to the Telegram in February, Pineiro said that "he believes the city fought 'tooth and nail' to avoid producing the records because it did not want the public to see a police internal disciplinary process he labeled a 'sham.'"

The city wrote in a statement, the Telegram reported, that it would "move on" and not appeal.

The case is GateHouse Media, LLC v. City of Worcester, No. 1885CV1526A (Mass. Super. Ct. Jan. 26, 2022).

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Miami Beach looks like a police state; Ocean Avenue shootings happened anyway

In March, I visited Miami Beach and found it to have the feel of a police state.

Uvalde and the shortly subsequent widely reported shootings happened while I was away from the United States, which was something of a mercy. I didn't have to live through the immediate trauma of it all happening again. But thinking about what happened and what could or should be done, including John Oliver's apt skepticism of the perennial calls to harden school security, caused me to remember my experience in March.

I've always liked Miami Beach. The art deco aesthetic combines with Latin-flavored food, drink, and entertainment and incomparable people watching to provide a unique and memorable experience every time. I had not been there, though, in many years, and I was anxious to see how it emerged from the pandemic.

I had a good time revisiting old haunts, but I found the nighttime police presence downright oppressive. Countless cop cars sat with their blue and red lights illuminated all along Ocean Drive and in Lummus Park. Bright spotlights made artificial daylight in the park and on the beach inside the dunes; paths to the ocean were closed. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, perched upon lamppost after lamppost. It was a police state on steroids. (All photos RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)



I could not imagine what had happened that precipitated such security, and I was inclined to be critical. Then, shortly after I returned home and despite what I'd witnessed, news broke of five separate shootings during the main week of spring break. Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed a midnight curfew to quell further violence, NPR reported.

I have no great insights as to what is going on at Miami Beach. I can only say that one of my favorite places, a vacation destination in the United States, looks more like a police state than actual police states I've visited abroad. And that didn't avert five shootings.

I don't have the answers, but making more places look like what Miami Beach has become doesn't seem to be one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Hospital BAC disclosure prompts tort privacy claims

Photo by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)
The federal district court in Montana in December refused to dismiss an informational privacy claim against police, highlighting the space for state law to effect personal privacy protection in the United States.

Plaintiff Harrington was hospitalized after police found her unresponsive in her parked car. In the complaint, she alleged that sheriff's deputies "joked about her incapacitated condition and played along when nurses asked them to guess her blood alcohol content" (BAC). A nurse thereby disclosed Harrington's BAC, and, the complaint alleged, deputies then coaxed the record from a doctor. Harrington was charged with driving under the influence.

Subsequently, Harrington sued county officials and Madison Valley Hospital, the latter on theories of state statutory information privacy and common law invasion of privacy, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The hospital sought dismissal on grounds that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), cited by the plaintiff in the complaint, affords no private right of action.  The federal district court, per Chief Judge Brian Morris, denied the motion to dismiss, recognizing that while HIPAA does not itself authorize private enforcement, it also does not preclude state law from providing greater privacy protection.

The case caught my attention because its facts point to something for which I've advocated, the use of tort law to fill gaps in informational privacy protection in the United States.  The law has not kept up with Americans' expectations of privacy, much less the norms of the world, but the common law should be sufficiently dynamic to reflect the evolving social contract.  I see drift in this direction in the expansion of medical fiduciary duty in emerging precedents in the states, such as Connecticut's Byrne v. Avery Center for Obstetrics & Gynecology, P.C., in 2018.

A theory as tenuous as negligent infliction of emotional distress, "NIED," can't usually stand on its own.  And tortious invasion of privacy has a poor track record in protecting personal information that is already in limited circulation.  However, paired with a medical provider's fiduciary duty and bolstered by a privacy violation recognized in regulation, either tort theory might be ripe for redefinition.

The case is Harrington v. Madison County, No. 2:21-cv-00015 (D. Mont. Dec. 6, 2021).  Hat tip to Linn Foster Freedman at Robinson+Cole's Data Privacy + Cybersecurity Insider.

Friday, January 21, 2022

SCOTUS lets stand First Amendment protection of citizen newsgathering via secret recording of police

Pixabay by Bruce Emmerling
Denying review in November 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand court decisions declaring the Massachusetts wiretap statute unconstitutional as applied to recording police in public places.

I wrote about the original U.S. District Court decision here at The Savory Tort in 2019.  As I commented then, the decision and others like it in the federal courts have broader implications for the First Amendment and the right of access to information.  Historically, American courts have been reluctant to locate access rights in the negative command that Congress make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

But developments in media technology have dimmed the once bright line between information acquisition and expression.  In an age in which one can retweet scarce moments after reading a tweet, government regulation of receipt seems to impinge intolerably on transmission.  Layer on as well a realpolitik of demand for accountability in law enforcement, and the mechanical application of a wiretap prohibition to a smartphone recording of police conduct, or misconduct, becomes indefensible.

Accordingly, civil liberties advocates applauded the district court holding "that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions."  Bipartisan claimants in the case included Boston-based civil rights activists K. Eric Martin and RenĂ© Perez, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, and conservative activist James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas Action Fund.

In December 2020, the First Circuit mostly affirmed.  U.S. Circuit Judge David J. Barron observed for a unanimous panel that also comprised retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, sitting by designation, and Senior Judge and Rhode Islander Bruce M. Selya, "Massachusetts makes it as much a crime for a civic-minded observer to use a smartphone to record from a safe distance what is said during a police officer's mistreatment of a civilian in a city park as it is for a revenge-seeker to hide a tape recorder under the table at a private home to capture a conversation with an ex-spouse."

The Massachusetts wiretap law, which is restrictive, requiring all-party consent, but not unique in the states, thus offended the First Amendment insofar as it "prohibit[ed] the secret, non-consensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces."  In the vein of the changing media landscape and advent of citizen journalism, the First Circuit opined: "In sum, a citizen's audio recording of on-duty police officers' treatment of civilians in public spaces while carrying out their official duties, even when conducted without an officer's knowledge, can constitute newsgathering every bit as much as a credentialed reporter's after-the-fact efforts to ascertain what had transpired."

However, ruling that Project Veritas's purported fear of prospective prosecution failed to prevent a controversy ripe for adjudication, the First Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court insofar as it reached the "secret, non-consensual audio recording of government officials discharging their duties in public" (my emphasis).  That's not to say the principle of the ruling cannot extend beyond police, to other public officials, when there is legitimate public interest in accountability.  Precedent suggests such extension.  But the court was skeptical of the potential reach of an unqualified ruling: "[I]f we ... construe the term 'government officials' as broadly as 'officials and civil servants,' that category covers everyone from an elected official to a public school teacher to a city park maintenance worker."

The First Circuit ruling thus nudges the First Amendment forward in the access arena.  Meanwhile, First Amendment problems lurk ever more menacingly in countervailing privacy law.

At the end of November 2021, Twitter announced a new privacy policy allowing any individual pictured in a tweet to demand takedown, regardless of whether the tweet contains information held private.  There are public-figure and public-interest exceptions.  But generally, images of ordinary persons in public places are imbued with a right of privacy akin to that which animates the European (and increasingly rest-of-the-world) right of personal data protection.

The balanced protection of personal privacy in public places is proving difficult to draw in European courts, which have generated rulings not always savory to the American palate.  My Google Nest Doorbell, for example, facing the public street in Rhode Island, would be problematic under European privacy law.  A private company, Twitter does not have to contend with the First Amendment.  But if the same privacy value and takedown policy were embodied in law, well, as they say in New England, a stahm is a-brewin'.

Both district and circuit courts rejected Project Veritas's facial challenge to the wiretap law.  Project Veritas filed a petition for writ of certiorari in May 2021, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review in Project Veritas Action Fund v. Rollins, No. 20-1598, on November 22, 2021.  Hat tip to Brian Dowling at Law360Cf. Family in fatal police shooting demands transparency, The Savory Tort, Jan. 19, 2022.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Family in fatal police shooting demands transparency

Fall River Police Department
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
At a rally in Fall River, Mass., on January 15, the family of Anthony Harden, who was killed by police in November, demanded transparency in the investigation into the shooting.

News reports state that Harden, 30, became involved in a physical altercation with two police officers trying to arrest him at his home.  Harden was confined to the home with a GPS bracelet while charges were pending in an assault case, WBZ reported in December.  According to police, Harden repeatedly stabbed at one of the officers with a metal object, possibly a steak knife, and the other officer shot and killed him.

Bristol County District Attorney (DA) Thomas M. Quinn III investigated and announced in December that police had complied with the department use-of-force policy, WBZ reported.  But the family has not yet seen the full record of the investigation, the Fall River Herald News reported after the "Justice for Anthony" rally on Saturday, and the family alleges inconsistencies between a private autopsy and the DA's conclusion.

In light of the police accountability movement that erupted in recent years in the United States, my Freedom of Information (FOI) Law seminar in the fall semester took up law enforcement transparency as a special topic.  Sifting the voluminous writing on police accountability in scholarly, NGO, and popular literature, I found, probably unsurprisingly, that lack of transparency is often a volatile fuel of misunderstanding and vehement distrust between people and police in these matters.  Worse, it doesn't always have to be.

At risk of generalizing to the detriment of the many, many police officers and departments that uphold the law with integrity, there remains the conventional wisdom that police are notorious for resistance to transparency.  My own youthful interest in FOI law was spurred by, and, in fact, a factor in my decision to go to law school in the 1990s was, frustration dealing with the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office when I was a student journalist in Virginia.  

FOI "audits," occasionally carried out by media and NGOs to test state open records compliance, invariably test police, because a characteristic reluctance to comply with the law, ironically, juxtaposes so sharply with the urgent life and liberty interests of persons subject to police power.  The classic tension in this vein is nicely encapsulated by Amy Sherrill's report on police compliance for a 1999 Arkansas audit.  The piece might as well have been written yesterday; secrecy in policing is a persistent devil.

For my October class, besides some introductory material such as the law enforcement exemption in the federal FOI Act (FOIA) (subpart (b)(7)), after which the states have modeled many statutory open records exemptions, I assigned:

  • State ex rel. Standifer v. City of Cleveland, 2021 Ohio 3100 (Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2021);
  • Emanuel Powell, Unlawful Silence: St. Louis Families’ Fight for Records After the Killing of a Loved One by Police, 57 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 65 (2020); and
  • Somebody: Police, The Intercept (Apr. 14, 2020) (podcast ep. 3).

There is so much to unpack on this topic that I had to be judicious.  The Standifer case, arising from an investigation into police violence in Connecticut, frames the subject with First Amendment access implications and the balance between police transparency and the rights of persons named in police records, including police officers themselves.

I can't say enough about the Powell article.  An attorney with ArchCity Defenders, Emanuel Powell related a personal and powerful narrative with a well informed and reasoned call for reform.

The entirety of The Intercept podcast, "Somebody" season, is worth the time.  For this class, I chose the "Police" episode, especially for its audio recordings of a mourning mother, Shapearl Wells, desperately seeking answers in the death of her son, and what she faces with police who are sometimes understanding but more often defensive, guarded, and harsh with her.  The audio medium demonstrates, in a way a cold transcript could not, the communicative disconnect between Wells and police, and the insult, however unintended, of unnecessary opacity upon an already tragic injury.  Somebody was a joint project of the Invisible Institute and comes with, especially useful for secondary school, a 10-unit teaching guide

There are some fascinating online clearinghouses on police data, such as NGO Mapping Police Violence and the Invisible Institute's Citizens Police Data Project, the latter focusing on Chicago, having begun as a collaboration with the University of Chicago.  The annual program of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) in fall 2021 featured informative sessions on police transparency reform and tracking police misconduct records (latter trailer only).  Tomorrow, I plan to attend virtually a plenary panel of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association, "Racial Injustice Exposed on Camera: Police Transparency and Government Access in a Viral World."

I am open to persuasion on the basis of what I might not know about the investigation into Harden's death.  But on the face of it, I see no reason at this point for withholding investigative records, especially the autopsy.  Law enforcement authorities sometimes fear record release because it might compromise the public's position in seemingly inevitable litigation.  But discovery will bring the evidence to light anyway, and public entities shouldn't get to hold their cards tightly when accountability for lost life is at stake.

It's especially troubling that on the Bristol County DA website, there is, at the time of this writing, not a single mention of Anthony Harden.   The last two press releases from the office, before and after announcement of the conclusion in the Harden investigation, regard sentencing in other matters, touting the DA's success.  The 11-page report on the Harden matter, described by The Herald News, I cannot find online, not at the DA's site, nor from the State Police Detective Unit that conducted the investigation.

So one might understand how the Harden family, and families similarly situation around the country, might worry that the political heads of law enforcement are concerned more with reelection than with justice.  Transparency would not necessarily solve all ills, but it might diffuse tension and enhance public confidence by some measure.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Incarcerated persons have access to information in Massachusetts law, court confirms, but not in all states

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay
A man imprisoned for murder has a right of access to public records no less than anyone else, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in the summer.

Nine years ago, Adam Bradley was co-perpetrator of a home invasion in Billerica, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, in which 22-year-old resident Quintin Koehler was shot and killed.  The crime was tied to the Bloods gang, according to The Boston Globe.  In 2017, at age 32, Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a life term.

Lately, Bradley has used the Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL, or FOIA) to investigate his conviction by requesting police records.  He alleged in a lawsuit that the State Police records access officer (RAO) failed to respond to multiple PRL requests.

In court, the RAO resisted production under the PRL on two grounds, (1) the ongoing investigation exemption of the PRL and (2) the parallel availability of records to Bradley in criminal discovery.

The Appeals Court soundly rejected both state arguments.  On the first ground, RAO overreached by declaring the entirety of the case file within the investigation exemption.  On the second ground, the PRL operates independently of parallel access in criminal process, the court held.  The RAO anyway owed Bradley a response asserting grounds for non-production.  The state public record supervisor twice ordered the RAO to respond.

The court holding accords with state freedom-of-information norms; the most noteworthy point of the case is that an appeal was required.  As in other states' FOIA exemptions for ongoing investigations, the Massachusetts PRL requires record-by-record review, redaction for partial production when possible, and, if necessary, in camera inspection by the trial court in a legal challenge.

The problem of parallel access is somewhat more vexing, though still should not have confounded the RAO.  Some states expressly exclude active litigants from FOIA uses that might subvert judicial procedure.  But such exclusions, which are far from universal, typically do not bar post-conviction access in criminal matters, even with ongoing appeals.  The RAO in the instant case relied on regulatory language that faintly suggested discovery exclusivity, and the court properly dispelled that theory.

Parallel access questions are thornier when there are state regulatory mechanisms in play that arguably supersede state FOIA as a matter of legislative intent, especially in the area of business regulation.  For example, a statutory framework for state contracting might regulate disclosure and non-disclosure of records maintained by the contractor or submitted to the state, arguably superseding FOIA access.  Even then, the rule of statutory construction that FOIA access is to be construed liberally and FOIA exemptions to be construed narrowly usually makes FOIA a trump card.  Bradley's case presented no such wrinkle.

The case is noteworthy also for a rule that is not at play.  Massachusetts is not one of the states that has limited or simply disallowed FOIA use by prisoners.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Arkansas FOIA in 2003 to exclude incarcerated felons from the state definition of "citizen."  Access advocates, including me, managed at that time to negotiate the exclusion down to only DOC records and pro se requests, allowing attorney-representatives to make requests.  Eight years later, the exemption was amended to eliminate the DOC limitation.

It was difficult to advocate for prisoner access.  Incarcerated felons are not a popular constituency and don't vote.  And to be fair to state officials, many dilatory and hardly comprehensible requests emanate from prisons and tie up public resources with no clear public benefit.  At the same time, of course, persons deprived of liberty are susceptible to human rights abuses for which accountability is notoriously elusive.  Michigan public radio in 2016 explored the problem of prisoner civil rights in the absence of access to information in that state's law.

The Massachusetts case is Bradley v. Records Access Officer, No. 20-P-419 (Mass. App. Ct. 2021).  Justice Gregory I. Massing authored the opinion for a unanimous panel also comprising Justices Henry and Ditkoff.  Before appointment to the bench in 2014, Justice Massing served as executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, and previously as general counsel for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Student comment calls on police unions to do their part for accountability reform, revelation of truth

Michelle M.K. Hatfield, an alum of my Torts I-II classes, has published a comment, Can Police Unions Help Change American Policing?  

This comment nicely links the need for police accountability with the right to truth, a theme better known in post-apartheid South Africa than in American policing, and suggests that police unions could do more to stimulate socially constructive reform.  Here is the abstract:

Police unions are part of the problem in American policing. Could police unions also be part of the solution? This Comment begins by putting into practice the dialectic we must achieve at a societal level by detailing the ways in which police and Black Americans have been positioned to be in conflict from the seventeenth century to the present, and by discussing the formation of police unions. American society needs truth-telling about the history and present context that drives police officers into deadly conflict with Black Americans to heal, trust, and effectuate a more perfect system for public safety. This Comment wrestles with the need to understand several truths at once: that police organized into unions in part to protect the rank-and-file from managerial abuse; that the American policing system is in many ways designed and implemented against Black Americans; that police unions organized in the Civil Rights Era to protect police officers from discipline for following orders; and that deep, structural change should include police unions. Less fundamental changes that leave in place the core of American policing, without examining its racist foundations and incentives toward brutality and lethal force, will not serve to bring about lasting reconciliation. This Comment reviews several ways to improve the management of police departments put forth by labor and policing scholars and suggests that the promise of such reforms could motivate participation in a truth process. The conversation about policing reform in the United States has expanded and deepened tremendously in the past year, and it continues to evolve and take on new dimensions. This Comment urges policymakers to create a truth process as part of police reform and suggests that the process be implemented via the police unions because the voices of police organizations that represent rank-and-file officers are a critical ingredient for meaningful change.

Needless to say, police accountability has become a recurring theme and point of student interest in my courses, including Torts and Freedom of Information Law.  Ms. Hatfield gave me and my law-librarian-extraordinaire spouse Misty Peltz-Steele the privilege of feeding back on this article prior to submission for publication, but that's me riding coattails.  Ms. Hatfield prepared this superb paper principally upon her own impressive initiative and in ample fulfillment of the paper requirement of a popular course in labor law taught by my colleague in public policy, Professor Mark Paige.

The comment appears in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review, 2021:211.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Collateral to drug-testing race discrimination suit, Boston wins chance to demand indemnity by lab

National Archives
Is hair-follicle drug testing racially discriminatory?

That was not the question before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Friday, but the Court's decision ancillary to that disparate-impact civil rights question is instructive on indemnity.

The civil rights claim in this case was filed in 2005 and still is in litigation in federal court.  Plaintiffs in that suit are eight police officers, a police cadet, and an applicant for a 911-operator job who suffered adverse action after testing positive in hair-follicle drug tests administered by the City of Boston.  Seven of the officers were fired for cocaine-positive results.

The plaintiffs, all African American, deny drug use.  They assert that the test is inaccurate and "disproportionately yielded false positives for people of color, resulting in disparate impact by race," the SJC wrote Friday.  "During the eight years for which the plaintiffs present data, black officers and cadets tested positive for cocaine approximately 1.3% of the time, while white officers and cadets tested positive just under 0.3% of the time," the First Circuit wrote in 2014.

The city won summary judgment twice in the trial court, yet the First Circuit twice found error, in 2014 and in 2016, and remanded for further proceedings.  The case, Jones v. City of Boston, remains in the district court, though the docket shows no activity on the merits since the latter remand, suggesting a resolution might have been reached.

The instant case is a dispute in state court between the city and the test provider, Psychemedics Corp.  In the city's contract with Psychemedics, the company promised "to 'assume the defense of' the city, and to 'hold [it] harmless' from all suits and claims arising from 'wrongful or negligent' acts by Psychemedics."  After suit was filed against the city, it went to Psychemedics to talk defense.  It's not clear that the two ever got on the same page.  Psychemedics seemed to regard the suit as outside the scope of the indemnity and regarded its obligations fulfilled by offering the city technical assistance on the science.

Then, as the SJC recounted flatly, "Ten years passed."  In 2017, the city started looking around for help with its long mounting legal expenses and set its sights on Psychemedics.  "What?!" Psychemedics said.  I paraphrase.  Psychemedics sued for declaratory relief, and the city counterclaimed for breach of contract and related theories.

The case boils down to an indemnitee's duty to notify an indemnitor of the need to defend.  An indemnitee, the Court held, "must give the indemnitor 'notice and an opportunity to defend.'  The indemnitee then must allow the indemnitor to take over the defense (if it attempts to do so), and must not later block the indemnitor from doing so."  Parties are free to contract specifics, but in the absence of other specification, "'no particular form of words is necessary' to present notice and the opportunity to assume the defense."  (Citations omitted throughout.)

Justice Lenk
The SJC vacated the trial court summary judgment for Psychemedics and remanded.  The trial judge had improperly decided questions of fact, inadvertently burdening the city with having to refute the company's assertions of fact.  The SJC rejected as unproved, as yet, a number of Psychemedics theories, such as that the city had declined the company's defense or had not litigated Jones in good faith as to protect Psychemedics from liability.

To my novice reading—I am no expert on insurance or indemnity—the city fairly invoked the company's duty to defend many times, and Psychemedics tried to weasel out.  Anyway, the SJC concluded that that was how the trial court should have looked at the case on summary judgment motion, because that was the position of the city, which was the non-moving party.

The case is Psychemedics Corp. v. City of Boston, No. SJC-12903 (Mass. Jan. 29, 2021).  Justice Barbara A. Lenk, since retired, authored the opinion of the unanimous Court.