Friday, October 13, 2006
Appeals Court Upholds Firing of Police Officer for Disclosing Personal Information Regarding Suspect
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has rejected a former police officer’s claim that she was unlawfully interrogated by her supervisor prior to being terminated for disclosing personal information about a vandalism suspect to the person who made the complaint.
Div. Seven Wednesday upheld Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs’ ruling that former Covina officer Stephanie Steinert’s rights under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act were not violated.
Steinert challenged her questioning by Sgt. John Curley, her commanding officer. Witnesses testified at an administrative hearing that Curley spoke to Steinert after her name came up in a routine state Department of Justice audit of use of the department’s criminal justice database.
The audit disclosed that the officer had searched for records on a subject named Robert Tirado, and had used the code “TRNG,” suggesting that the records were accessed for training purposes—which would have violated DOJ and Covina Police Department policies prohibiting the use of actual records for training.
After being notified by DOJ of the apparent violation, the Covina PD examined its records for the day in question and found that Steinert had taken a vandalism report around the time that she accessed the database. Tirardo’s name was not mentioned in the report, but a link between the location on the report and Tirado’s rap sheet suggested a connection between Tirado and the victim.
Curley was informed of the situation and questioned Steinert about it. He later testified that at the time, he believed the database had been properly accessed and that the officer had merely erred in entering the TRNG code instead of the number of the vandalism report, and in leaving the subject’s name out of the report.
Curley testified, however, that he had also asked Steinert whether she disclosed any confidential information about Tirado to the complainant, and she said she had not. Curley subsequently contacted the complainant, however, as part of what he said was a routine audit, and learned that the officer had disclosed confidential information.
That, in turn, led to an internal affairs investigation resulting in the officer’s dismissal.
In petitioning for a writ of mandate, Steinert contended that Curley violated Government Code Sec. 3303, part of the Bill of Rights Act. The statute limits interrogations of officers who are “under investigation...that could lead to punitive action” but is specifically inapplicable to an interrogation “in the normal course of duty, counseling, instruction, or informal verbal admonishment by, or other routine or unplanned contact with, a supervisor or any other public safety officer.”
Steinert argued that since she was subject to possible discipline for accessing the database under the training code, Curley’s questioning could have led to punitive action and was thus subject to the statutory restrictions. Janavs disagreed, saying the discussion amounted to “a routine communication between a subordinate and a supervisor.”
That conclusion was supported by “[a]bundant evidence,” Justice Laurie Zelon wrote in an unpublished opinion for Div. Seven.
The justice cited Curley’s testimony that he believed that the officer could have had a perfectly legitimate reason for accessing the report and might have made a “common mistake” by using the wrong designation, and that he normally would have used a verbal direction rather than a written reprimand to correct such a mistake.
The support services manager for the department, who oversees use of the databases, also testified that such a mistake would have been treated as a training, rather than a disciplinary, matter, the justice noted. She also cited testimony that the conversation was brief and “casual,” and the fact that no disciplinary action was initiated before Curley learned that confidential information had been disclosed.
Zelon distinguished City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (1997), in which the Court of Appeal held Sec. 3303 applicable to a supervisor’s questioning of an officer who allegedly failed to render aid at the scene of a fatal traffic accident because he was on a donut run.
In that case, Zelon explained, the supervisor questioned the officer after receiving a report that an officer had failed to render aid at an accident scene and verifying that an officer fitting the description of the subject had been at the donut shop that night at about the time of the accident, as well as learning that the subject was not authorized to use a police vehicle that night.
Thus, the justice said, the supervisor had a legitimate suspicion that the officer had committed a serious offense, and should not have interrogated him without following the statutory procedure, including advising the officer of his rights under the Bill of Rights Act.
“In contrast, here Curley did not have information demonstrating that that Steinert had committed a crime, unlawfully accessed Tirado’s information, or improperly released Tirado’s information to the public,” the jurist wrote. “He did not suspect that such misconduct had occurred, believing that the only thing Steinert had done wrong was to designate a search as training instead of by a case number. He had no intention to punish Steinert, only to make sure she knew the proper procedure for future searches.”
Attorneys on appeal were, Dieter C. Dammeier and Michael A. McGill of Lackie & Dammeier for Steinert and Richard M. Kreisler and Jennifer R. Hong of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore for the City of Covina.
The case is Steinert v. City of Covina, B187940.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company