AELE LAW LIBRARY OF CASE SUMMARIES:
Civil Liability
of Law Enforcement Agencies & Personnel


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Police Plaintiff: Defamation

     A former member of the Ohio House of Representatives was not entitled to immunity under state law for a letter she wrote concerning police officers' execution of a search warrant and shooting of a person present on the premises. The appeals court rejected the argument by the House of Representatives that the trial court, in order to deny immunity, had to find by clear and convincing evidence that she acted with "actual malice." The court found that there was no requirement that such malice be proven by clear and convincing evidence. Additionally, nothing showed that the former representative had any information from which a reasonable person could believe that the statements in her letter were true. While she could state her personal opinions about the officers' actions, this did not justify her accusation that the officers acted with the criminal intent to murder an individual. Habeeb v. The Ohio House of Representatives, No. 07AP-895, 2008 Ohio App. Lexis 2225 (Ohio App. 10th Dist.).
     The trial court's issuance of an injunction barring a deputy sheriff's ex-wife from publishing false and defamatory statements or confidential personal information about him or from initiating contact with the sheriff's department concerning him, except for the purpose of reporting criminal conduct under emergency circumstances violated her free speech rights under both the U.S. and California constitutions. The order was an unconstitutional prior restraint and was overbroad and vague. False and defamatory statements cannot be enjoined before they are found, at trial, to be defamatory. The prohibition on the publication of confidential personal information would require a more specific description of the information at issue, although, if sufficiently described, its publication might violate a right of privacy under the California constitution. Finally, the wife had a constitutional right to petition the government that included contacting the sheriff's department in non-emergency circumstances, and the order prohibiting her from doing so was not justified by the evidence in the record. Evans v. Evans, No. D051144, 2008 Cal. App. Lexis 689 (4th Dist.).

     Police chief was not entitled to recovery for defamation against the city and its former safety director on the basis of the publication of a report containing what he claimed was false statements about him from an inmate and two prostitutes that he had fathered an illegitimate child with a minor prostitute. The statements contained in the city's report were protected by a qualified public interest privilege. Republication of the statements in the report did not show actual malice towards the chief, especially since the report questioned the credibility of the statements. Jackson v. City of Columbus, No. 05AP-1035, 2006 Ohio App. Lexis 5166 (10th App. Dist.). [N/R]
     In a defamation lawsuit brought by police for statements made by a township supervisor during the meetings of a township's board of supervisors, the supervisor was entitled to absolute immunity from liability under Pennsylvania state law. . Heller v. Fulare, No. 05-3687, 2006 U.S. App. Lexis 16843 (3d Cir.). [N/R]
     In a police officer's defamation lawsuit against a newspaper and reporter based on two articles reporting on issues that certain residents were having with the officer, he was a public figure, so that liability required a showing of "actual malice," which is knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements published. A mere showing of "substandard" journalistic practices, such as the failure to investigate in order to corroborate a source's statements, is insufficient to satisfy this standard. Bartlett v. Bradford Publishing, 885 A.2d 562 (Pa. Super. 2005). [N/R]
     In a police officer's libel lawsuit against a newspaper over an article reporting his alleged verbal abuse of a woman, the "actual malice" legal standard applied, even though the officer was allegedly off-duty at the time of the incident. The article was focused on the alleged abuse of police authority based on race, and the plaintiff officer was wearing his police jacket at the time of his alleged misconduct. "Actual malice" requires, for liability for defamation, that the plaintiff show that that false statements were made about him with knowing falsity or in reckless disregard of their truth. In this case, the officer failed to show such actual malice, and the reporter could not be required to withhold the story just because the officer denied making the alleged statements. Smith v. Huntsville Times Co. Inc., No. 1021999, 888 So. 2d 492 (Ala. 2004). [N/R]
     Statements on radio show stating that a police officer had committed crimes and had an extramarital affair were defamatory per se, entitling him to an award of damages without proof of economic or particular loss if he could show their falsity, so that summary judgment for the defendants on these claims was improper. Gordon v. Boyles, No. 02CA2196, 99 P.3d 75 (Colo. App. 2004). [N/R]
     Deputy sheriff was properly awarded $225,000 in damages against newspaper, its editor/publisher, and a columnist, based on articles which called him a "murderer" and accused him of beating a handcuffed arrestee to death with a flashlight. Georgia appeals court finds that statements were published with knowledge that they were false, or in reckless disregard of the truth. Lake Park Post, Inc. v. Farmer, #A03A0841, 590 S.E.2d 254 (Ga. App. 2003). [2004 LR Mar]
     Ohio police officer could not obtain damages for defamation based on civil rights organization's actions in distributing a letter which accused the police department of "killing, raping, planting false evidence," and himself of using a "marine-style chokehold" to kill an unarmed suspect. Statements in the letter were opinions protected under the free speech provisions of the Ohio state constitution. An average reader, the court holds, "would be unlikely to infer that the statements were meant to be factual," since the entire letter "was a call to action and meant to cause outrage in the reader," and the particular statements were "clearly hyperbole, the opinion of the writer, and were offered to persuade the reader that an immediate crisis was occurring in the city." The court also noted that the letter did include reference to the outcome of a trial in which the officer was found not guilty on an assault charge and a mistrial was declared on an involuntary manslaughter charge. Jorg v. Cincinnati Black United Front, No. C-030032, 792 N.E.2d 781 (Ohio App. 1st Dist. 2003). [N/R]
     A newspaper article which was a satire or parody that, if believed, conveyed a false or defamatory impression was not protected under the First Amendment as merely an opinion or rhetorical hyperbole, but could be the basis for a defamation claim if a reasonable reader could have believed that it was making statements of fact. District Attorney and judge could pursue claim against newspaper for publishing an article with a made up story suggesting that they might prosecute and try a first grader for writing a book report about a children's story since it contained an "implication of violence." New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks, No. 02-01-023-CV, 91 S.W.3d 844 (Tex. App. Ft. Worth, 2002). [N/R]
     Virginia prison warden could not pursue, in Virginia federal court, defamation claims against Connecticut newspapers for publishing articles, also posted on their Internet sites, concerning Connecticut state policy of housing some prisoners in Virginia correctional facilities. No personal jurisdiction over defendants solely on the basis of the posting of the articles on the Internet when there was no intention to reach Virginia readers. Young v. New Haven Advocate, No. 01-2340, 315 F.3d 256 (4th Cir. 2002). [N/R]
     Police officers could not recover damages for defamation against television network which put African-American "testers" in an expensive car on the road in order to determine whether the officers would stop them, and then surreptitiously recorded and broadcast the resulting stop on television under the title "Driving While Black." Hornberger v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 799 A.2d 566 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2002). [2002 LR Sep]
     Mayor's critical statements about a police department with between five and eight members could not be the basis for a defamation lawsuit by one of the officers on the basis of a "small group theory" that the statements could be taken to apply to each individual officer. The mere conclusory belief that the statements reported in a newspaper article concerned the individual plaintiff officer were insufficient for liability under Virginia law. Dean v. Dearing, No. 011154, 561 S.E.2d 686 (Va. 2002). [N/R]
      Police officer could not sue church, pastor, and their attorney for defamation based on attorney's letter threatening legal action against the officer for defamation because of statements officer had made during an investigation. Absolute privilege protects such letters sent in "contemplation" of judicial proceedings, even when the claim asserted was later abandoned. Bell v. Lee, No. 04-00-00011-CV, 49 S.W.2d 8 (Tex. App. 2001). [N/R]
    Company which issued video stating that police officers had been "implicated" in deaths of two teenage boys and a subsequent "cover-up" could not be held liable for defamation when officers failed to meet the burden of proving either that the statement was false or that it was made with "actual malice." Arguments disputing the credibility of those who had "implicated" the officers did not alter the fact that they had been accused by some. Campbell v. Citizens for an Honest Government, Inc., No. 00-1411, 255 F.3d 560 (8th Cir. 2001). [2002 LR Jan]
     339:45 Missouri police officer could pursue claim for defamation against person who allegedly filed a "false and malicious" misconduct complaint with the department; Missouri appeals court rules that statements made while filing such complaints were protected only by qualified privilege, rather than absolute privilege. Barge v. Ransom, No. 23329, 30 S.W.2d 889 (Mo. App. 2000).
     299:172 Newspaper not liable for publishing article stating that arrestee died from injuries sustained during arrest, since that was "true or substantially true"; statement that he died after a "beating" by white police officers was not true, however, since all but one blow by officers were delivered while arrestee was striking at them or actively resisting arrest; but no liability for false statement, since it was made without "actual malice" Morris v. Dallas Morning News, Inc, 934 S.W.2d 410 (Tex. App. 1996).

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