ACLU Overturns Law and Protects CA Citizens from Being Sued by Police

October 20, 1999 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES — In a victory for free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union today overturned a state law allowing police to sue individuals who lodge complaints against them.

The ACLU lawsuit challenged California Civil Code § 47.5 — the only law of its kind in the nation — that gives police officers a special right to sue citizens who file complaints of misconduct against them.

“This ruling affirms the basic right of all citizens to speak out about police misconduct,” said ACLU of Southern California Staff Attorney Daniel Tokaji who argued the case. “The court has recognized how vital it is to have an open channel of communication between the police and the communities they serve. No longer will citizens with legitimate complaints against police officers worry that they could lose their life savings or their home because they have the courage to speak out.”

The case, Gritchen v. Collier, arose from a 1997 incident in which Myron Gritchen was stopped while driving by Long Beach police officer Gordon Collier. Gritchen believed the officer had treated him in a discourteous manner and so filed a complaint with the Long Beach Police Department. Later that year, Officer Collier threatened to sue Mr. Gritchen for filing the complaint.

“The ACLU has always contended that citizen complaints are protected speech guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said John Crew, Director of the ACLU’s Police Practices Project. “We challenged the legality of California’s Civil Code because it singled out citizen complaints for disfavored treatment.”

“Under this statute, police, but no other public officials, were allowed to bring defamation claims based on citizen complaints,” Crew added. “Clearly, the court agreed with our argument that this law was unconstitutional.”

The court determined that Civil Code § 47.5 violated the First Amendment by specially targeting speech critical of peace officers. U.S. District Court Judge Gary Taylor ruled that, “Section 47.5 has . . . (a chilling) effect, since it imposes greater risk upon citizens who report claimed police misconduct and thereby discourage the filing of complaints.”

The Court also found that, “No showing has been made that there is a serious problem of false complaints against police; Significant protections from false complaints are already afforded to police officers by their internal oversight agencies.”

“There has been a long-standing and statewide problem of police officers filing retaliatory lawsuits against people who lodge misconduct complaints,” said Crew, who served as co-counsel along with Tokaji and ACLU of Northen California managing attorney Alan Schlosser. “At least four such cases were brought by San Francisco police officers.”

“While the ACLU has succeeded in defeating each of those cases, the chilling effect of the threat of being sued for merely filing a complaint has remained,” Crew added. “This ruling should end that intimidating practice once and for all.”

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