Appellate Court Affirms Discharge of Peace Officer for Improperly Accessing Confidential Records and Making False Statements to Investigators
There is an old saying when it comes to the impact of a police officer’s dishonesty on continued employment: "You lie, you die." In its unpublished decision in Dove v. City of Los Angeles (June 30, 2017) Case No. B275379, 2017 WL 2829394, the California Court of Appeal was called upon to address that adage when it reviewed the Los Angeles Police Department ("LAPD") Board of Rights’ ("Board") termination of a police officer for improper computer access and false statements. By affirming the trial court’s denial of the police officer’s petition for writ of administrative mandate, the court’s decision underscores the fact that a police officer’s dishonesty will often justify termination of employment.
Background of Case
Betty Dove was a police officer for the LAPD. Her duties included conducting informal computer trainings on an ad hoc basis. Dove had a personal relationship with Carlos Rosales. In early 2012, Rosales’s driver’s license was scheduled to expire. Dove used the LAPD’s computer system to access Rosales’s Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") records in January 2012 and on three additional occasions over the next two months, including March 6 and 7, 2012. Rosales went to various DMV offices to obtain a duplicate driver’s license on several days during that same timespan, including on March 7, 2012. An audit revealed Dove’s computer inquiries for Rosales’s DMV records.
In June 2013, LAPD Internal Affairs ("IA") interviewed Dove regarding an unrelated complaint. Dove stated that she did not access other people’s information, but used her own information to train other officers. IA filed a complaint alleging that Dove "inappropriately accessed the [LAPD] computer system for non-duty related activities." In November 2013, Dove told IA investigators she used Rosales’s name for training purposes because it was a common name. Dove could not recall the names of the officers whom she allegedly trained. The investigator found Dove’s explanations "unbelievable" and "disingenuous" and called it a "heck of a coincidence" that Dove searched for Rosales’s DMV records on March 6 and 7, 2012 and Rosales visited DMV offices on March 7.
An April 2014 amended complaint further alleged that Dove provided false statements to investigators during interviews in June and November 2013. At a hearing before the Board, Dove admitted she provided inaccurate information at her June 2013 interview. Several LAPD employees testified about computer system procedures and policy, including the regular on-screen admonishment that the system "is for law enforcement investigations only" and the policy forbidding the use of actual live records for training purposes. In December 2014, the Board found Dove guilty of each count in the complaint. In February 2015, the Chief of Police upheld the Board’s decision and terminated Dove’s employment.
Dove filed a petition for writ of mandate with the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that the Board’s findings were not supported by the evidence. The trial court denied the petition. Dove appealed to the California Court of Appeal.
Court of Appeal Decision
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, largely concurring with its review of the statute of limitations issue and evidentiary findings.
In considering whether the City’s findings rested on sufficient evidence, the court observed that an LAPD officer may be removed only for good and sufficient cause. (L.A. City Charter, § 1070(a).) The court noted that the LAPD’s manual prohibits employees from disclosing or using confidential records not required to perform their official duties. The court found substantial evidence supporting the City’s finding that Dove inappropriately disclosed and used Rosales’s confidential DMV records. First, Dove admitted to the Board that she had done so. Second, the court found no evidence that Dove’s duties required her to use or disclose Rosales’s information to train others. The court cited to testimony at the Board hearings that it was unnecessary and inappropriate to use a boyfriend or third party in a computer search for training purposes. Alternatively, the court found "sufficient evidence," such as the overlap in the dates of Dove’s access and Rosales’s DMV visits, to support a finding that Dove accessed Rosales’s DMV records for non-work reasons rather than for training purposes.
The court rejected Dove’s argument that she did not violate LAPD policy because she corrected her initial inaccurate statements during subsequent proceedings. The court noted that a statement is deemed false under LAPD policy if the speaker knew or should have known at the time that it was not true. Substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that Dove should have known that her initial statements to IA investigators were untrue when she made them, rendering her subsequent corrections immaterial.
Impact of Decision
While the holding in this case is unpublished and is therefore non-precedential, the court’s decision demonstrates that evidence of a police officer’s dishonesty can be determinative of whether there is good cause to warrant termination. Of equal interest, the court noted that the police officer’s attempt to correct her initial false statements did not change the fact that that she had been initially deceptive. This is a reminder that investigators should make every effort to lock down complete statements of a subject police officer at the initial interview. While a police officer may have the ability to clarify answers that were initially vague, ambiguous or incomplete, the decision in Dove demonstrates that an officer may not be able to mitigate an original false statement that was made unequivocally.