Posted by Mary Ann Stewart
In what is a landmark ruling that will affect every city or county which operates a police department, the Kentucky Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision found that the procedural protections of KRS 15.520 (the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights) apply not only to disciplinary actions originating from citizen complaints, but to complaints arising within the police department itself. The decisions arise from Pearce v. University of Louisville, 2011-SC-000756-DG, and Hill v. Mt. Washington, 2012-SC-000104-DG (decided 12/18/2014).
The Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling is a major departure from previous Court of Appeals’ opinions, which consistently interpreted KRS 15.520 to apply only when the complaint of misconduct originated from a citizen. The previous decisions were based upon language of KRS 15.520 which indicated that KRS 15.520 only applied to citizen complaints, and not intra-departmental complaints arising from internal affairs investigations, or supervisors’ complaints alleging misconduct or violation of departmental rules by subordinate officers.
However, the Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ decisions and found that the distinction between a citizen’s complaint and an intra-departmental complaint was “wholly a creation of the lower courts rather than the legislature.” The Court further stated that by enacting KRS 15.520, the legislature intended to establish a “baseline system for the investigation and hearing of complaints against police officers,” and that there was no legislative intent to forbid an officer from exercising the statutory administrative due process rights just because the complaint originated internally.
This decision will have a major impact on all city and county police departments going forward. Public officials should be aware that whenever a disciplinary action against a police officer is contemplated, regardless of whether it is based on internal or external allegations, the procedures in KRS 15.520 are triggered. Due to this new interpretation, local government officials, including police chiefs and/or mayors, are well advised to consult with their attorneys before taking any disciplinary action against a police officer so as to ensure that the technical, procedural requirements of KRS 15.520 are followed.