An officer in the Chandler (Ariz.) Police Department operated a Website featuring explicit photographs of himself, his wife, and another woman engaging in sex acts together, as well as a videotape of his wife masturbating. Even though the officer did not appear in uniform or identify himself as a policeman, information about his site soon circulated in the department and in the community, and the local press reported that a Chandler police officer was running a sexually explicit Website.
At the conclusion of an internal investigation, the department dismissed the officer for bringing discredit to the police force. The officer sued in federal court on First Amendment grounds. He argued that the department had no right to fire him for something he did outside his city employment. Rejecting his claims and affirming the city's right to terminate him, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled as follows:
"Police departments, and those who work for them, are engaged in a dangerous calling and have significant powers. The public expects officers to behave with a high level of propriety, and, unsurprisingly, is outraged when they do not do so. The law and officer safety demand that police be given a degree of respect, and the sleazy activities of this officer and his wife could not help but undermine that respect. Police officers are quintessentially public servants, and part of their job is to safeguard the public's opinion of them.
"Whether the officer's activities were related to his employment or not, the City could discipline him for his vulgar and indecent activities without violating his First Amendment rights. This plaintiff may have the constitutional right to run his sex-oriented business, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman for the City at the same time." (Dible v. City of Chandler)
You Could Go to Jail
In a pending case, Internet postings are alleged to have played a dual role in criminal charges now being litigated. A 26-year-old woman was found in her Staten Island apartment with an electrical cord wound around her neck. Investigators believe the man now accused of murdering her was enraged over her Facebook entries that discussed his sexual activities, so he confronted her and killed her.
One of the coroner's EMTs working the crime scene-a retired NYPD detective-is alleged to have taken an unauthorized photo of the victim's corpse and then posted it on his own Facebook page. This individual was fired and charged with criminal misconduct for these actions, and he faces up to a year in jail if he is convicted.
Increasingly, privacy protection statutes prohibit law enforcement employees and others from making unauthorized access to or publication of confidential information. Violation of such a law by an officer who posts details of an investigation or crime scene photos online could get the officer fired, sued, and prosecuted.
The Internet has beneficially expanded our access to all kinds of valuable information. It certainly has its uses in law enforcement communication and research. But it's no place for officer indiscretions that can only bring trouble to the indiscreet officer and his or her department. When in doubt about the wisdom of sharing a questionable posting with the rest of the planet, instead of "Send," consider "Delete."
Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."