Routine Discussion With Supervisor Not Covered By Bill Of Rights

Stephanie Steinert was a police officer for the Covina, California Police Department. Her name arose as part of a routine informal audit performed by the California Department of Justice, which monitors use of its criminal records databases. The Covina Police Department learned from the Department of Justice that Steinert had performed a records search on an individual named Robert Tirado and had designated the search “TRNG,” signifying training. Justice Department and Covina policies precluded the use of actual records for training purposes.

The support services manager at the Covina Police Department, Rachel Leo, examined their records for the day that Steinert had run the search in question, and found that Steinert had taken a vandalism report from Wendy Roff at approximately the same time that the record search was conducted. Leo suspected that Roff had mentioned Tirado while reporting the vandalism and that this had prompted Steinert to run Tirado’s criminal history in the course of taking the vandalism report.

Leo furnished this information to Steinert’s sergeant, John Curley. Curley believed that as long as Tirado’s name had been mentioned in the context of the report-taking, the criminal history search itself was appropriate and the only problem was the “user error” of designating the search as for training rather than entering the crime report number associated with Roff’s vandalism report.

Later that same morning, Curley called Steinert into his office. She remembered taking the vandalism report and told Curley that Roff had in fact mentioned Tirado when making the report. Curley instructed Steinert that in the future, she should make sure to include names such as Tirado’s as “mentioned persons” in the crime report, and she should use a case number rather than “TRNG” when she performed record searches on individuals. Steinert took the instruction well. Curley asked one more question of Steinert: Had she disclosed any of Tirado’s confidential information to Roff? Steinert replied that she had not.

As a supervisor, Curley was required to perform audits of two crime reports per week, contacting the person who reported the crime to inquire whether the Department and officer responded courteously and appropriately. Because Curley had already reviewed the Roff crime report, he decided to use that report as one of the two audited reports for the week. When he contacted victim Roff, she reported that Steinert had disclosed confidential information about Tirado when she made her crime report. With this information, Curley launched an internal affairs investigation of Steinert. The Department ultimately fired Steinert for her violation of the confidentiality rules.

Steinert challenged her discharge on the grounds that it violated California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights. Steinert requested that the Court suppress her statements to Curley on the ground that the conversation in which it was elicited was an interrogation that could and did lead to punitive action and that she therefore should have been afforded notice of the interrogation and other protections.

The California Court of Appeals rejected Steinert’s claim. The Court found that the encounter between the two was a routine communication between a supervisor and a subordinate, and was not subject to the protections of the Bill of Rights.

As the Court put it, “Steinert’s mislabeling was not a substantial rule violation in the mind of Curley or Leo. Under certain circumstances, an officer who improperly designated an actual search as training could be subject to a written reprimand. It is not, however, mandatory to issue a written reprimand or more serious punishment every time a rule or regulation is breached. Curley believed that the misdesignation of a proper search and the failure to include the individual’s name in a report was exactly the kind of situation that merited not a written reprimand but a verbal direction to correct these procedural problems in the future. We conclude that the interaction was an ‘interrogation of a public safety officer in the normal course of duty, counseling, instruction, or informal verbal admonishment by, or other routine or unplanned contact with, a supervisor,’ and that by the terms the Bill of Rights did not apply.”

Steinert v. City of Covina, 2006 WL 2875802 (Cal.App. 2006).

This article appears in the December 2006 issue