No Constitutional Right For Police Officer To Associate With Prostitute/Heroin Addict

Emir Bautista was a deputy sheriff for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In August 2002, while on duty driving a marked Department bus, Bautista saw Shawn Crook, a prostitute, standing on a street corner. Bautista did not know Crook, but recognized her as a prostitute. He decided to engage her in a conversation, not for any law enforcement purpose, but to attempt to get to know her and understand the reasons she had resorted to prostitution. Bautista hoped he could help reform women like Crook and assist them in leading crime-free lives. Bautista enjoyed talking to Crook; the two soon developed a friendship.

At some point during their on-going association, Bautista gave Crook his home telephone number. Because Crook did not have a car, Bautista often drove her places, including to dinner and to the methadone clinic where she was receiving treatment for her heroin addiction. Bautista also gave Crook rides home in the early morning after she had finished working the streets to make sure she returned safely.

In Summer 2003, Bautista and Crook twice encountered City of Gardena police officers. On one occasion, a Gardena lieutenant warned Bautista that continued association with Crook could cost him his job. Ignoring the advice, Bautista and Crook moved in together, and later married.

The Sheriff’s Department fired Bautista for violating the Department’s prohibited-association policy by engaging in a personal relationship with Crook without informing the Department and obtaining the Department’s consent. Bautista challenged his termination, claiming it violated his federal constitutional right to association. The California Court of Appeals disagreed, and upheld Bautista’s termination.

The Court observed that “the Department has a legitimate interest in regulating the behavior of its sworn officers to minimize conflicts of interests and protect the credibility and integrity of the Department. Accordingly, anti-fraternization rules prohibiting police officers from socializing with those who they know are engaging in criminal activity have routinely been upheld against constitutional challenges such as Bautista’s.”

Bautista argued that there was insufficient evidence the Department’s legitimate interest in preserving its integrity and credibility and minimizing conflicts of interest was compromised by his association with Crook. In fact, he asserted, the evidence was undisputed that his interest and involvement with Crook had been instrumental in Crook’s eventual abandonment of prostitution and her recovery from heroin addiction, a result that was undoubtedly beneficial to both the Department and to the larger community it serves.

The Court was unpersuaded, finding that “undoubtedly, there are certain admirable aspects to Bautista’s efforts to help Crook. However, Bautista’s decision to initiate a personal relationship with Crook, without the Department’s approval, was not without costs. Bautista’s long-standing personal association with Crook, along with her multiple detentions by the Gardena Police Department while he was with her, embarrassed the Department and undermined its reputation in both the law enforcement community and the public it is charged with protecting.”

Bautista v. County of Los Angeles, 2010 WL 4457712 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2010).

This article appears in the January 2011 issue