ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Support Public Employees' Right to Expose Police Misconduct

October 12, 2005 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES - In a case being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court today, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of public employees' First Amendment rights to expose corruption on the job.

"A public employee who speaks up in the public's interest by reporting suspected police misconduct to his superiors should not lose his First Amendment protection against retaliation by his employer. Instead he should be praised and held up as a positive example of a whistleblower," said Peter Eliasberg, Manheim Family Attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU of Southern California.

The case, originally filed in federal court in Los Angeles in March 2000, centers around an attempt by Richard Ceballos, a Deputy District Attorney in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, to expose police misconduct. While working on a criminal case, Ceballos wrote a memo to his supervisors saying that he believed a deputy sheriff had falsified an affidavit used to obtain a search warrant in the case. His superiors decided to proceed with the prosecution; after Ceballos informed the defense counsel about his findings, he was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing to dismiss the case. The judge denied the motion and Ceballos was removed from the prosecution's team.

Ceballos said his removal from the prosecution was the first of many acts of retaliation for his whistleblowing. He was denied a promotion, demoted to the rank of trial deputy and transferred from Pomona to the El Monte branch of the District Attorney's office.

"In an era of increased government secrecy, it is critical that we protect the First Amendment right of government employees to expose government misconduct, both to their supervisors and to the public at large," said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU. "Government accountability is at the heart of the First Amendment, and it is not enhanced when whistleblowers are silenced."

Six months before Ceballos raised the issue of corruption on the part of the Deputy's Sheriff, Los Angeles had been shaken by the Rampart scandal, a series of abuses involving corruption by an anti-gang unit of the LA Police Department. After considering the facts, consulting with his colleagues and superiors and taking into account the increased scrutiny in Los Angeles on police misconduct, Ceballos recommended that the criminal case be dismissed.

A district judge dismissed the lawsuit. Ceballos then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the lower court's decision holding that Ceballos' speech was protected under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February 2004.

Ceballos' attorney, Bonnie Robin-Vergeer of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, will argue the case. Attorneys Eliasberg and Shapiro submitted the amicus brief along with Michael Small of the law firm Akin and Gump on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the national ACLU and the ACLU of Southern California.

The ACLU's brief in the case is online at www.aclu.org/court/court.cfm?ID=19137&c=317.


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