In Scatchell v. Board of Fire & Police Commissioners for the Village of Melrose Park, et al., an Illinois Appellate Court upheld the decision of a local Board of Fire and Police Commission (“BFPC”) to terminate the employment of a police officer based on several charges of misconduct.
In late 2017, a police officer took paid sick leave to recuperate from an on-duty injury. While on sick leave, the police department learned that the officer was reported to be out hunting when—based on doctor’s orders and department policy—he should have been resting at home. The department reached out to a branch of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to request that conservation officers be on the lookout for the officer. A conservation officer eventually did spot the officer hunting with several others, including a former police officer who was also a convicted felon and was not permitted to possess or use a weapon. When confronted by the conservation officer, the officer claimed he “could not say” whether his companion had fired a shotgun while they were out hunting.
The department then investigated whether the officer abused his sick leave and whether he violated any department policies in his interaction with the conservation officer. During the investigation, the investigator issued the injured officer a Garrity warning, advising him that he was immune from criminal prosecution for any statements made during the investigation but could face discipline or discharge for refusing to answer questions. The injured officer acknowledged and signed the immunity notification.
During the BFPC’s disciplinary hearing about these incidents, the officer refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. The department renewed the injured officer’s Garrity immunity, reminding him that he could be disciplined for insubordination for not answering the questions presented during the disciplinary hearing. When he still refused to testify, the department added an insubordination charge. The BFPC decided to discharge the officer based on eight counts of disciplinary charges, including refusal to obey his superior’s direct order to testify during the hearing. The officer appealed, and the case made its way to the Illinois Appellate Court.
One of the issues that was discussed at length in the opinion was the nature of the Garrity immunity, which protects government employees from being prosecuted for statements they make during an internal investigation, so the government employee is not forced to choose between being fired and incriminating themselves. Once the immunity attaches, however, and the employee faces no possible criminal charges, he or she may be discharged for insubordination for refusing to answer questions related to potential misconduct.
Because the injured officer had been issued a Garrity warning, which remained intact throughout the investigation into his misconduct and the BFPC hearing, the Court decided the BFPC was justified in terminating the officer for insubordination (among several of the other disciplinary charges filed against him).
While the decision of the Court was quite detailed and lengthy, it is worth reading for an understanding of Garrity immunity and the Illinois Administrative Review Law.
Post Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink