Pinhole Camera Leads To Officer’s Termination

Jeffrey Poolman was a police officer for the City of Grafton, North Dakota Police Department. Poolman owns a mixed-use building, and rented space in the building both to Migrant Health Services as well as to a residential tenant, Honorious Gulmatico, who lived in the basement with his girlfriend. Gulmatico had Poolman’s permission to host performances by Christian rock bands so long as no drugs, alcohol or tobacco were brought onto the premises.

One of the performers Gulmatico had been hosting discovered a pinhole camera in a wall in Gulmatico’s bathroom. Gulmatico notified the Department which, with Gulmatico’s consent, searched the basement. The Department discovered two wires that ran from the camera to a locked closet that contained various items, including a VCR with a blank videotape.

When confronted, Poolman admitted that he had placed the camera in the bathroom, but explained that someone from Migrant Health had complained of a marijuana-like odor after one of the rock concerts and that he had been trying to discover whether someone was smoking marijuana. That same morning, the Department executed a search warrant on Poolman’s residence, wherein it found a computer, computer equipment, and videotapes. Two of the videotapes had been erased, except for five seconds of footage at the beginning of each tape that appeared to depict a medical examination. The Department also found a safe that contained, among other things, a bag of pills.

Poolman told another officer that, while on duty, he had found some pills that field tests indicated might be methamphetamine or Ecstasy. Some of these pills were in a bottle which Poolman later delivered to the evidence locker. There were also loose pills lying in the street that he placed in a baggie and brought home. Poolman said that he had placed the baggie in his safe so that his children would not find them and that he had forgotten to later put them in the evidence locker. According to a later laboratory test, the pills in question were Vitamin C.

Poolman was subsequently charged with the crime of surreptitious intrusion. Two days later, the Department fired him. Poolman, who was later acquitted of the criminal charges, sued the Department for deprivation of due process rights.

Poolman argued that even though he did not have a property right to the job, he had a “liberty interest” that demanded a hearing. Under the law, an aggrieved public employee asserting a liberty interest must show that the public employer’s reasons for discharging him or her stigmatized the employee by seriously damaging his standing and association in the community or by foreclosing employment opportunities that might otherwise been available.

The federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Poolman’s lawsuit. The Court held that for a liberty interest to be viable, the employee must not only be stigmatized by the charges, but the charges must also be false. In Poolman’s case, the Court noted that “Poolman did not deny placing a pinhole camera in the bathroom without Gulmatico’s knowledge or placing a camera in the Migrant Health examination room. Nor did he deny placing items he felt might be drugs in his personal safe. Finally, he did not deny that he had been charged with a crime, which, according to City policies, would justify his termination. In sum, whether or not Poolman considered his actions wrong, he did not contest the substance of the accusations leveled against him.”

Poolman v. City of Grafton, North Dakota, 487 F.3d 1098 (8th Cir. 2007).

This article appears in the August 2007 issue