ACLU Challenges California Criminal Law That Chills Citizen Complaints Against Police

February 29, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES, CA — Acting on behalf of an African-American bicyclist who was physically assaulted by San Bernardino police officers, the American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in California today filed a federal lawsuit saying the man’s free speech rights were violated when he attempted to file a citizen complaint about the incident.

The ACLU said the case, Hamilton v. City of San Bernardino, is the first known challenge to the constitutionality of a California criminal statute that chills citizen complaints against peace officers. Last year, the ACLU successfully challenged the civil counterpart to this law.

“We all know that people in this country have the right to remain silent. But they also have the right not to remain silent,” said ACLU staff attorney Dan Tokaji. “Every citizen has a basic right to speak out against police misconduct.”

“The recent events surrounding the LAPD demonstrate what can happen when this right is violated and the ‘code of silence’ prevails,” he added. “We have brought this lawsuit so that concerned citizens can report abusive police officers without fear of retaliation.”

In legal papers, the ACLU contends that Penal Code §148.6 is unconstitutional because it treats complaints against peace officers differently from complaints against all other public officials. They claim that a requirement to warn citizens of the criminal consequences of a false report can be used to intimidate citizens like Hamilton who wish to file legitimate complaints of police abuse or misconduct. A similar argument was accepted by the federal district court in Gritchen v. Collier, the ACLU’s challenge to the comparable civil statute.

Today’s case arises from an incident that took place nearly one year ago today on March 3, 1999. LaFrance Hamilton said that he was stopped by San Bernardino Police Officers while riding his bicycle. After a brief verbal exchange, the officers pulled Hamilton off his bicycle, forced him to the ground and searched and handcuffed him, based on their contention that Hamilton lacked a proper bicycle license.

One of the officers ordered Hamilton to sit in the dirt, and then grabbed Hamilton around the throat, kicked his legs out from under him, landed on top of him, and placed a knee on his chest while continuing to choke him.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, upon being released Hamilton went to the San Bernardino Police Department in order to lodge a citizen complaint regarding the officers’ actions. The watch commander at the station, who had already been informed by another officer of the incident, used the threat of prosecution under California Penal Code §148.6 to discourage Hamilton from filing a citizen complaint. To this date, Hamilton has not filed a complaint because of the officer’s threat.

In addition to making a claim for violation of his First Amendment rights, the ACLU lawsuit alleges that Hamilton’s constitutional rights were violated during the stop and arrest last year.

The ACLU is co-counsel in the case along with private attorneys Joe Freeman and Robert Seaman, of the law firm Seaman & Freeman.

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