Judge hears case of fired police officer
The honesty of former South Lake Tahoe police officer Johnny Poland went on trial this week, and whether the embattled former officer will return to police the streets of South Lake Tahoe now rests in a judge’s hands.
El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Steven Bailey heard arguments from attorneys representing South Lake Tahoe and Poland on Wednesday, saying he would consider them and issue a written ruling on the matter at a later time.
The city is challenging a December ruling by a three-member hearing board that unanimously found the city abused its discretion when firing Poland for his alleged cover-up of a Nov. 20, 2006, incident in which a student brought a BB gun to South Tahoe High School.
Around 9:45 a.m. that day, dispatchers received reports of a large fight at the school where gunshots were possibly fired. The school was subsequently locked down by police.
During an interview with a male student who was involved in the fight, Poland found a broken BB gun in the student’s car and told him to get rid of it, according to testimony by the student discussed in the hearing board’s decision.
Poland – who was familiar with the student – later issued a citation to him for bringing a weapon onto campus, according to the hearing board’s decision.
Poland said he did not report the discovery of the BB gun to supervisor Cam Carmichael because he found the gun irrelevant to the investigation after it had been determined that no shots were actually fired at the school that day, according to testimony in the hearing board’s decision.
Following an internal investigation of the incident, Police Chief Terry Daniels fired Poland in June 2007. The decision was later upheld by City Manager David Jinkens. Poland then appealed the decision to the hearing board. Terminated police officers are allowed a hearing before a hearing board as part of an appeal process specified in agreement between the city and the South Lake Tahoe Police Officers’ Association.
The board determined that Poland’s actions justified a six-week suspension and a condition that Poland not be allowed to volunteer for duties that would raise his pay above base salary for 18 months. But the board concluded Poland’s actions did not warrant his termination.
Poland is being paid by the city following the board’s decision, but has not returned to work as a police officer since he was fired.
The city vehemently fought the board’s decision during the hearing on Wednesday.
Poland’s failure to report the BB gun to his supervisor shows a pattern of behavior he has displayed throughout his career that will make him ineffective as a witness during future criminal cases if he returns to work for the police department, argued Cynthia O’Neill, the attorney representing the city in the case. Defense attorneys will be able to cast doubt on any testimony Poland might give in the future, possibly allowing criminals to go free, O’Neill said.
“We have dishonesty plain and simple,” O’Neill told the court on Wednesday.
“Poland violated the most basic of police responsibilities by not reporting the gun and telling supervisors,” O’Neill said.
Poland’s attorney, Steven Welty, argued honesty is not central to the case and, because it was determined there were no guns used during the fight, the BB gun in the car is “totally separate” from the incident that prompted the lockdown.
“The crux of the problem is that the board did not find Johnny Poland was dishonest,” Welty said.
Although the hearing board found Poland used “extremely poor judgment” by not collecting the gun, the board’s findings do not state Poland was dishonest in his handling of the incident.
Poland’s behavior did not rise to level of the “deliberate, clear dishonesty” required to justify termination in legal precedent guiding the case, Welty argued .
“This was not a dishonesty issue, they did not find that in this case,” Welty said.
The board’s decision also did not meet the legal precedent that it be “arbitrary, capricious or patently abusive” for a judge to overturn it, Welty argued.
O’Neill countered by arguing that that the board’s decision would be arbitrary and capricious because the decision would send a “dishonest cop back to the streets.”
“We have an officer that cannot do his job,” O’Neill said. “If that’s not harm to the public service, I don’t know what is.”
Earlier in the hearing, Judge Steven Bailey questioned whether that was the case.
“I don’t think (the hearing board’s decision) was arbitrary, and does it reach the level of patently abusive,” Bailey asked O’Neill at one point during Wednesday’s hearing, before taking the arguments under submission.
Bailey did not give a timeline for a decision on the case.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Poland maintained that he was wrongly terminated and said he would continue doing what he had been since his dismissal more than two years ago.
“All you can do is sit and wait,” Poland said.
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