California Courts Continue Hard Line On Officer Dishonesty

Law enforcement recruits are often told that the one disciplinary offense that will not be tolerated is dishonesty. “You lie, you die” is a common parlance in many police academies.

In practice, the rule has become less and less clear-cut. Many courts, arbitrators and civil service boards tend to see gradations of untruthfulness. To be sure, untruthfulness in official police reports, particularly where the untruthfulness impacts the rights of a citizen, is still not tolerated. However, other forms of untruthfulness – such as dishonesty about why sick leave was used – may well bring punishments lesser than termination.

As a recent decision from the California Court of Appeals shows, the general trend to evaluate untruthfulness cases individually, examining the causes and nature of the dishonesty, has not permeated into the California appellate court system.

The case involved San Diego County deputy sheriff Aaron Aguilera, who was terminated for telling a lie to his supervisor concerning a traffic stop. Aguilera told his supervisor that the vehicle that was stopped was already hooked up to a tow truck when the owner of the vehicle, the driver’s father, arrived at the scene and requested that the vehicle be released to him. In fact, the owner arrived before the vehicle was hooked to the tow truck.

When the Department fired Aguilera for dishonesty, Aguilera appealed to the County’s Civil Service Commission. The Commission concluded that while Aguilera had lied, it could not consider certain of his statements because the Department’s investigation violated California’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights. In the absence of those statements, the Commission found, Aguilera should be reinstated.

The Court of Appeals reinstated the Department’s termination order. The Court noted that under its prior decisions, “because law enforcement officers are held to the highest standards of public trust, even a single act of dishonesty by a peace officer warrants termination. Here, the Commission specifically found that Aguilera lied during the discussion with his superior officer. However, without explanation, the Commission concluded that evidence of a lie was insufficient to support termination. This was an abuse of discretion, particularly given that Aguilera was a peace officer.

“The overriding consideration in determining whether the public employee discipline decision is an abuse of discretion is the extent to which the employee’s conduct resulted in, or if repeated is likely to result in, harm to the public service. A deputy sheriff with even a single proven act of dishonesty on duty is no longer able to function as a peace officer. Indeed, as the Commission itself noted, a confirmed act of untruthfulness has a sustained and substantial impact on a Deputy Sheriff’s ability to discharge the duties of his position in the Sheriff’s Department. A deputy lying to his superior officer has a high likelihood of harming the public service.

“Moreover, because the entire administrative record and decision will be available in future criminal cases, Aguilera can no longer effectively serve as a Sheriff’s deputy. A future record request will yield the deputy’s disciplinary record, including the termination order and Commission decisions. A deputy with this history of untruthfulness, evasiveness or obfuscation is permanently compromised as a witness in any future judicial proceedings because any opposing party will readily be able to impeach the witness with the prior dishonest statement.”

Gore v. San Diego County Civil Service Commission, 2014 WL 4628022 (Cal. App. 2014).