Kentucky’s LEO Bill of Rights Applies to Internally Generated Complaints

In the 34 years that the State of Kentucky has had a Police Officer’s Bill of Rights statute providing due process for officers under internal investigation, the Kentucky Supreme Court had never considered the issue of whether the Bill of Rights applied exclusively to the investigation of complaints made by citizens as opposed to those generated internally. In December 2014, the Court decided in two consolidated cases that the Bill of Rights did apply to internally-generated complaints.

One case involved Jeffrey Pearce, a University of Louisville campus police officer who was terminated for violating University and departmental policies. The other case involved City of Mount Washington Police Officer Stephen Hill, who was disciplined for insubordination by making statements critical of the Chief’s administration to other officers.

In both cases, the departments initiated disciplinary investigations as a result of allegations from within the police departments themselves. Both officers requested an administrative review procedure consistent with the Bill of Rights and in both cases that request was denied. Those denials led to the Supreme Court’s decision on the scope of the Bill of Rights.

The Court began by focusing on the introductory language of the statute, which reads: “In order to establish a minimum system of professional conduct of the police officers of local units of government of this Commonwealth, the following standards of conduct are stated as the intention of the General Assembly to deal fairly and set administrative due process rights for police officers of the local unit of government and at the same time providing a means for redress by the citizens of the Commonwealth for wrongs allegedly done to them by police officers covered by this section.”

The employers argued that the word “citizens” and the phrase “wrongs allegedly done to them by police officers” limited the Bill of Rights to citizen-initiated complaints. The Court criticized this focus as ignoring the fact that the statute used the phrase “citizens of the Commonwealth” and not simply “citizens.”

The Court noted that the Legislature clearly intended for the Bill of Rights to “establish administrative due process rights for police officers.” The Court reasoned that “an administrative disciplinary proceeding originating from an internal action is, by definition, an administrative proceeding in the same sense as an administrative disciplinary proceeding originating from a ‘citizen’s complaint,’ and so application of the statute to an intra-departmental complaint is compatible with the Legislature’s express intention to set administrative due process rights for police officers. Therefore, this rather unambiguous statement of legislative intent weighs heavily against an interpretation imposing a limitation restricting application of the statute to ‘citizens’ complaints’ only.”

The Court also observed that the introductory section of the Bill of Rights stated as follows: “Any complaint taken from any individual alleging misconduct on the part of any police officer, as defined herein, shall be taken as follows.” From the Court’s perspective “the statute is intended to apply to any complaint taken from any individual. In context, it is clear that the term ‘any’ is used synonymously with the term ‘all.’ Therefore, based upon the text’s use of the term ‘any,’ we discern no reason to confine the application of the term ‘any complaint’ to only complaints initiated by ‘citizens’ from the general public. For a similar reason, we see no reason to limit the term any individual to persons outside the police department and thereby exclude employees of the police department from the definition. A fellow police officer or member of the department’s administrative staff is obviously an individual, just the same as a member of the public is. Accordingly, this section of the statute supports an interpretation which would include complaints arising from within the police department, as well as from outside the department.”

Pearce v. University of Louisville and Hill v. City of Mt. Washington, 2014 WL 7226137 (Ky. 2014).