A recent ruling of the Illinois First District Appellate Court affirmed the Melrose Park Board of Fire and Police Commissioners’ decision to fire a Melrose Park Police Officer following a string of alleged misconduct.

In Scatchell v. Board of Fire & Police Commissioners for the Village of Melrose Park et al, (2022 Ill App (1st) 201361 a (now former) Melrose Park police officer, John Scatchell, brought a suit contesting his firing. In late 2017, Scatchell took paid leave to recover from an injury he suffered while on duty. During his leave, the police department learned that Scatchell was allegedly out hunting when both his doctor’s orders and department policy required that he should be recovering at home. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources investigated the report, and eventually, a conservation officer discovered Scatchell waterfowl hunting with several others, including a former police officer that was a convicted felon and not permitted to possess or use a firearm.

The Melrose Park Police Department (“MPPD”) investigated if Scatchell abused his paid sick leave and if his conduct during his interaction with the conservation officer violated department policies. During the investigation, the conservation officer issued Scatchell a Garrity warning, which protects government employees from criminal prosecution for statements they make during internal investigations so that the employee does not have to pick between being fired and criminally incriminating themselves. However, once the warnings are issued and the employee is immune from charges, they may face discipline or discharge for failing to cooperate in the investigation. See Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967). Scatchell acknowledged and signed the Garrity notice.

The Board of Fire and Police Commissioners for the Village of Melrose Park conducted a disciplinary hearing regarding both incidents. Scatchell refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights. Scatchell was again advised of his Garrity rights, including immunity from criminal prosecution and the possibility of receiving discipline for insubordination for failing to testify. When he again refused to testify, the MPPD added a charge of insubordination. Ultimately the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners decided to discharge Scatchell. Scatchell appealed and the case ultimately found its way to the Illinois First District Appellate Court.

In finding in favor of the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, the appellate court focused heavily on the Garrity warnings Scatchell received at his initial questioning and that were readdressed to him during his disciplinary hearing. Scatchell argued that the warnings he received did not attach for a variety of reasons, all of which the appellate court rejected (primarily due to the fact that counsel represented Scatchell throughout the process and the Garrity warnings were a large part of the Board’s hearings). Instead, the appellate court determined that neither the Board nor the Village ordered Scatchell to waive his Garrity immunity; to the contrary, they repeatedly told him that he would be protected by Garrity immunity and thus had no fear of self-incrimination if he testified before the Board. Scatchell’s right against self-incrimination was never in doubt; it remained intact because of the immunity afforded him.

It is important to give Garrity warnings to protect the employee’s constitutional rights, while also helping investigators preserve the evidentiary value of statements provided by witnesses in administrative and/or criminal investigations.

For more information about this article, contact Tressler attorney Jim Hess at jhess@tresslerllp.com.