Free Speech Protects Corruption-Reporting Cop

     CHICAGO (CN) — A suburban cop fired for telling the FBI that his boss let a local politician’s son off the hook on a traffic ticket has valid retaliation claims, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
     Officer David Kristofek said he was patrolling Orland Hills, Ill., in November 2010 when he saw an automobile operating on a suspended registration.
     He pulled the vehicle over and wrote two tickets when the driver failed to produce proof of valid insurance.
     During the stop, the driver, Alonzo Marshall, reported that his mother was the former mayor of a nearby town. Kristofek spoke with Marshall’s mother by phone, and she allegedly asked Kristofek not to arrest her son. Kristofek explained that he was bound by department policy to arrest Marshall and have his vehicle towed.
     At the station, Kristofek said he was entering the booking information into the computer when his coworkers told him to stop and give all of the paperwork to the deputy chief.
     Kristofek claimed that he was also told to delete any information about Marshall already entered in the computer system.
     He said the deputy chief swore at him when he questioned the orders.
     Concerned that “the unequal application of the law due to political considerations was improper and possibl[y] illegal,” Kristofek allegedly complained to other officers, according to court documents.
     After consulting with an attorney, Kristofek reported the incident to the FBI as “possible political corruption in the Orland Hills Police Department and/or Village of Orland Hills,” court documents say.
     Kristofek told the FBI that he was unsure whether the order to release Marshall came from the department or the mayor’s office.
     When Police Chief Thomas Scully heard about the FBI investigation in April 2011, he allegedly offered Kristofek the option to resign or be fired. Kristofek refused to resign, so he was fired on the spot.
     Kristofek sued Scully and the village of Orland Hills, claiming that he had been fired in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. In his complaint, he said that his statements to other officers and the FBI were made in his capacity as a citizen “contesting the unequal application of the laws to its citizens.”
     U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan ruled in favor of the village, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Thursday — and not for the first time. The Chicago-based appeals court also reversed the district court’s initial dismissal of Kristofek’s claims in 2013.
     “The content of Kristofek’s statements – that Alonzo’s citations were voided and that he was released solely on account of political favoritism – clearly involves a matter of public concern,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams said in the most recent ruling, writing for a three-judge panel.
     Williams found that, as a part-time officer, Kristofek did not have responsibility for pursuing or voiding citations. Since he made his report to the FBI as a private citizen, it qualifies for free speech protections.
     “In addition, we must be especially careful in concluding that employees have spoken pursuant to their official duties when the speech concerns allegations of public corruption,” the panel added.
     Williams said the court’s decision was not affected by the fact the Kristofek may have been motivated by a concern that he would be punished if the details of the voided citations came to light.
     “Critically, the record does not suggest that a reporter, investigator, or anyone else was inquiring into the matter which might have alerted Kristofek that potential punishment was eminent [sic],” Williams said.
     The panel found that Kristofek adequately showed he was fired in retaliation for speaking out about potential political corruption involving senior officials in the police department.
     The case has been remanded to the district court for further proceedings, with an instruction that it go before a different judge.

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