Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Sheriff Can Fire Deputy Who Married Prostitute—C.A
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Los Angeles County did not violate a sheriff’s deputy’s constitutional rights by firing him for socializing with a known prostitute and heroin addict he later married, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Seven, in an opinion published yesterday, rejected former deputy Emir Bautista’s First Amendment challenge to a Sheriff’s Department’s policy prohibiting officers from maintaining personal relationships with known criminals.
Bautista had argued that policy was vague, and violated his constitutional right to maintain intimate personal relationships. He was terminated in 2004 after his relationship with Shawn Crook became known to the department.
Writing for the panel, Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss wrote that Bautista’s now-familial relationship with Crook did not subject the policy to a higher level of scrutiny. He also said that sufficient evidence supported the department’s legitimate interest in preserving its integrity and credibility, and that the penalty was not excessive.
Bautista, who joined the department in 1996, befriended Crook in 2002 after stopping to talk to her to understand why she had resorted to prostitution in an effort. He said he did so to reform women like Crook and to help them lead crime-free lives.
As the relationship progressed, Bautista often drove Crook to dinner and to the methadone clinic where she was receiving treatment for her heroin addiction. He also gave her rides home in the early morning after she finished working the streets to make sure she arrived safely.
The pair moved in together in 2003 and later married.
However, department policy required officers to seek permission before associating with anyone under criminal investigation or indictment, or “who have an open and notorious reputation in the community for criminal activity, where such association would be detrimental to the image of the Department.”
Bautista failed to report the relationship, and the department sought his discharge in 2004 after learning that police officers in Gardena familiar with Crook’s past detained her multiple times while she was with Bautista. One of those officers testified that Crook had acknowledged continued illegal drug use only days before one of the encounters.
Chief Richard Martinez, the head of the Sheriff’s Department’s Court Services Division, testified that Bautista’s long-standing personal association with Crook, along with the multiple detentions by Gardena police, embarrassed the department and undermined its reputation with both the law enforcement community and the public.
Bautista sued in 2006 to reverse a decision of the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission approving his discharge. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, since retired, denied the request, reasoning that the prohibited-association policy was rationally related to a legitimate purpose and therefore constitutional.
On appeal, Bautista argued that Janavs should have applied heightened scrutiny to the policy because it infringed his fundamental right of marriage and similar intimate association, but Perluss said rational basis review was appropriate where the policy only “incidentally” affected those rights.
The justice conceded that Bautista’s involvement with Crook was “admirable” insofar as it encouraged her to abandon prostitution and recover from heroin addiction. However, he wrote, crediting Martinez’s testimony about the effect of Bautista’s relationship on the department, the decision “was not without costs.”
Perluss also rebuffed Bautista’s argument that the penalty was excessive, pointing out that the department’s disciplinary guidelines expressly mentioned discharge as the appropriate punishment.
Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon joined Perluss in his opinion.
The case is Bautista v. County of Los Angeles, 10 S.O.S. 6749.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company