April 18, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Civil Service Commission Must Defer to Hearing Officer’s Findings of Fact

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Johnson v. City & County of Denver on Thursday, March 22, 2018.

Police Officer DisciplineUse of ForceStandard of Review in Disciplinary Appeals.

Johnson, a Denver police officer, worked off-duty at a nightclub in downtown Denver. One night Brandon and his friends left the nightclub and began arguing with Johnson about Johnson’s earlier interaction with one of their friends. Johnson moved the group under a High Activity Location Observation (HALO) camera, which video-recorded their interactions (no audio was recorded). The video revealed that everyone in the group was visibly intoxicated. Eventually only Brandon and another man remained. Johnson then told Brandon he was going to detox and to turn around to be handcuffed. Brandon profanely told Johnson not to touch him. Johnson then suddenly moved toward Brandon and shoved him with both hands near the neck. Brandon fell backward onto some stairs and was handcuffed.

Brandon filed a disciplinary complaint against Johnson. The Chief of Police determined that Johnson had violated Denver Police Department Rules and Regulations RR-306 (inappropriate force) and suspended him for 30 days without pay. The Manager of Safety (MOS) approved the discipline imposed. Johnson appealed to a civil service commission hearing officer. The hearing officer reversed the suspension because (1) the MOS had erroneously applied the deadly force rather than the non-deadly force standard to Johnson’s conduct, and (2) the MOS had failed to present sufficient evidence to create a reasonable inference that finding a violation of RR-306 was correct.

The City appealed to the Civil Service Commission (Commission). The Commission reversed the hearing officer. The district court affirmed the Commission.

On appeal, Johnson contended that the Commission abused its discretion when it made its own findings of fact from a video recording of events at issue and rejected contrary facts found by the hearing officer. The “video exception” was created in a prior Commission case and is described as “statements an officer makes in direct contradiction to objectively verifiable facts in an otherwise authenticated video of the scene are not entitled to a presumption of truth.” Both the Denver City Charter’s and the Denver Civil Service Commission Rules’ standards of review govern the Commission’s review of the MOS’s order and the hearing officer’s findings, and they require the Commission to defer to the hearing officer’s findings of fact. They do not address a video exception, which is beyond the Commission’s authority to make. The video exception is contrary to law and invalid, and both the Commission and district court erred in relying on it to reverse the hearing officer’s decision.

The Court of Appeals further held that the Denver Police Department’s use of force policy articulates a single standard for reviewing an officer’s use of force and that separate standards do not exist for deadly and non-deadly force. Accordingly, the Commission correctly determined that the hearing officer erred in her application of the use of force standard.

Despite finding that the Commission erred in relying on the video exception to reverse the hearing officer’s decision, the Commission nevertheless reached the right result because (1) the hearing officer erroneously concluded that separate standards existed for deadly and non-deadly force, and (2) the hearing officer did not properly defer to the MOS’s findings as required by the clearly erroneous standard of review applicable to hearing officers and as set forth in the Commission’s rules. The hearing officer erred in substituting her own findings for those of the MOS.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*