- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Police officers accused of misconduct are entitled to administrative reviews set out by state law regardless of whether the complaints stemmed from internal police allegations or came from people outside of law enforcement, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The divided court’s ruling came in cases involving a University of Louisville police officer who was fired and a Mount Washington officer who was temporarily suspended without pay and had his rank reduced. The cases sprang from allegations initiating within their own departments.

Both officers requested administrative reviews, citing a section of state law known as the “Police Officer Bill of Rights.” A hearing was set for the UofL officer, Jeffery Pearce, but his request to have an attorney present was denied. Mount Washington Officer Stephen Hill’s request for a hearing was denied.

The officers lost their circuit court appeals, and state Court of Appeals panels ruled the officers weren’t entitled to the procedural process. The appeals court said the procedural protections apply only when the disciplinary action was initiated by a citizen’s complaint.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters said the law setting the procedural rights for officers applies both to disciplinary actions originating from internal police allegations and complaints from people outside of law enforcement.

“The dichotomy of a ‘citizen’s complaint’ vs. an intra-departmental complaint is wholly a creation of the lower courts rather than the legislature,” Venters wrote in the decision, which sent both cases back to the circuit courts for further proceedings.

The issue before the high court was of “significant concern” to law enforcement personnel in Kentucky and to the state and local governments employing them, Venters said. He noted the issue raised in the cases had not been previously dealt with by the state’s high court.

David Leightty, a Louisville attorney representing Pearce, said the procedural protections laid out in the law ensure evenhanded reviews of alleged police misconduct and whether the penalties are appropriate.

Some officers were essentially denied due process by lower-court rulings interpreting the law as to guarantee those reviews only when the allegations were brought by someone outside of law enforcement, he said in a phone interview Thursday.

“We viewed it as very detrimental to police officers because the vast majority of police discipline is not originated by a citizen complaint but comes from charges from within the department,” he said.

Pearce was terminated as a campus police officers after his chief determined he had violated university and departmental policies on two occasions. Hill’s punishment was recommended by his chief, who determined Hill had been insubordinate.

Venters was joined by Justices Mary Noble and Will T. Scott in his opinion. Justice Michelle Keller concurred in a separate opinion.

Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. led the dissenters in the case.

Minton wrote that interpreting the law to apply only to proceedings initiated by citizen complaints “is necessary to ensure a harmonious reading of all other relevant, interrelated statutes providing law enforcement officers with protections from arbitrary punishment from their employers.”

Minton was joined by justices Lisabeth Hughes Abramson and Bill Cunningham.

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