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Consumer rights group condemns dismissal of former Burbank detective's lawsuit

Public Citizen says dismissal of Dahlia case will have 'chilling effect.'

August 21, 2012|By Veronica Rocha, veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Claiming a federal appellate court's dismissal of a former Burbank police detective's lawsuit will have a “powerful chilling effect” on future whistleblowers, a consumer rights advocacy group on Tuesday asked the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling.

The nonprofit group Public Citizen joined attorneys for the former detective, Angelo Dahlia, in petitioning the full court for a rehearing because the ruling involves whistleblowing and 1st Amendment rights for public employees, which plaintiff attorneys called issues of “exceptional importance.”

Dahlia claims he was pushed out of the department after he relayed instances of misconduct made by fellow officers in the aftermath of a robbery in 2007 — a claim that was dismissed by a lower court, and subsequently by a three-judge panel from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The rarely granted proceeding is called an “en banc” hearing, which would be made up of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and 10 other judges chosen randomly.

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The petition also contends that the panel's ruling conflicts with decisions made by other U.S. District circuit courts.

“If the case is not reheard, it will exert a powerful chilling effect on officers who might otherwise report official misconduct and abuse,” Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen, said in a statement.

In response to the petition on Tuesday, Burbank City Atty. Amy Albano said there are already laws that protect “true whistleblowers.”

“We strongly believe the 9th Circuit Court decision was correct,” she said.

The three-judge panel based its decision on the Huppert v. City of Pittsburg ruling, in which an officer participated in a police corruption investigation and then notified the FBI.

But the three-judge panel recognized it was on shaky legal ground when it was deciding the case and felt compelled to address the issue, Michelman said in an interview.

The panel called Huppert's argument that reports of police misconduct are not protected by the 1st Amendment “dangerous.”

Dahlia's attorneys and Public Citizen contended in their petition that “the practical consequence of the Huppert [decision], applied by the panel here, is that the 1st Amendment never protects the speech of any California police officer who exposes official misconduct to any listener....”

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