Officer’s Testimony On Behalf Of Girlfriend’s Sister’s Husband Potentially Constitutionally Protected

Brian Reid was a senior police officer for the City of Atlanta, Georgia. On July 27, 2006, Reid testified as a character witness on behalf of Michael Grissom at a bond hearing in a United States magistrate court proceeding. Grissom was Reid’s longtime girlfriend’s sister’s husband, and had known Reid for at least eight years.

When the Department learned of Reid’s testimony, it began a disciplinary investigation. The Department eventually issued Reid a 30-day suspension and demoted him to the position of police officer. Reid responded by filing a federal court lawsuit alleging that the suspension violated his First Amendment free speech rights.

The Department moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that Reid’s testimony was not protected speech and, in any case, that he was demoted not for his testimony but rather for failing to comply with the Department’s rules that he notify his supervisors that he would testify.
The Court found that Reid should be entitled to a jury decision on the free speech question. As the Court analyzed it, “it is clear to the Court that Reid’s testimony on behalf of Grissom was made in his capacity as a private citizen. Reid was at Grissom’s hearing when he was off duty for the purpose of supporting his girlfriend. He was not in uniform, and he did not inform the Court that he was there in his professional capacity as an employee of the Atlanta Police Department. Reid barely mentioned his occupation and his employer, and only when directly asked questions pertaining to his employment.

“The testimony was given at a bond hearing, in a federal court, open to the public, where a transcript of the hearing was placed on the public record. The purpose of a bond hearing is to determine whether a criminal defendant should be either held in federal custody or released into society to await trial. This is certainly of interest to the community, and any testimony to that regard, whether it be on behalf of the defendant or for the prosecution, is a matter that concerns the public interest.

“It is in the public interest to encourage truthful and forthright testimony, even where that testimony is voluntary. The Supreme Court has recognized that every citizen has a basic obligation to testify in court because it is necessary to the administration of justice. While voluntarily given testimony may implicate less of a public interest than subpoenaed testimony, testimony at a criminal bond hearing still strongly implicates public concern and public interest. Further, Reid also had a personal interest in testifying on behalf of a close friend or pseudo-family member who needed a character witness to help him convince the judge that he should be allowed out on bond while awaiting trial for pending criminal charges.”

The Court also found that Reid had raised enough of a factual question as to whether his discipline was for his testimony or was because of his failure to comply with the Department’s notification rules that a jury should decide the issue.

Reid v. City of Atlanta, 2010 WL 1138456 (N.D. Ga. 2010).

This article appears in the September 2010 issue