NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently upheld the dismissal of two Bossier Parish sheriff's deputies for violating the sheriff’s department’s code of conduct after they swapped wives.
The plaintiffs, former sheriff's deputies Brandon Coker and Michael Golden, filed suit after being fired, alleging that the code of conduct violated their constitutional rights, according to the May 23 decision.
The deputies had initially been placed on administrative leave for moving in with each other’s wife and family prior to formally divorcing their own wives.
The sheriff’s office gave the deputies a deadline to cease living with women to whom they were unmarried or they would be fired. When the deadline passed with no change in the officers’ living arrangements, the officers were dismissed.
The part of the code that the officers allegedly violated stipulates that officers cannot “engage in any illegal, immoral or indecent conduct, nor engage in any legitimate act which, when performed in view of the public, would reflect [unfavorably] upon the Bossier Sheriff’s Office.”
The deputies claimed that the code of conducted violated their constitutional rights. The district court and the appeals court, however, disagreed, holding that public employees’ privileged positions necessarily come in exchange for giving up some of their constitutional rights.
“The code policies invoked against Coker and Golden are supported by the rational grounds of preserving a cohesive police force and upholding the public trust and reputation of the sheriff’s department,” the appeals court said in its decision. “Case law, including decisions of this circuit, has uniformly approved terminations of law enforcement officers for sexually inappropriate conduct.”
Nelson Cameron, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said the court’s decision was a mistake.
“On behalf of the two former deputies, I am filing petitions for panel rehearing and a rehearing en banc,” Cameron told Louisiana Record. “The panel that heard the case failed to examine precedent dating back to 1971 regarding a citizen’s right to free association. Although a law enforcement agency can demand more of its employees than other governmental organizations, it still must provide a compelling interest for doing so. In this case, there is no demonstration of such an interest.”
The appeals court’s opinion argues that law enforcement officials need to take different things into consideration regarding their consensual sexual relationships. Because their duties can include dealing with crimes such as human trafficking or spousal abuse, their relationships with the public can be somewhat more sensitive than those not in law enforcement, so they need to be careful to avoid negatively impacting the reputation of the sheriff’s department.
“The policies of the Bossier Sheriff’s office have have developed within the guidelines of the Courts and public expectations of their employees,” Charles Owens, chief deputy of the Bossier Sheriff's Office, told the Louisiana Record in a statement. “As public employees and role models, our conduct must reflect the trust the community has given us. Even the appearance of wrongdoing reflects negatively on the sheriff’s office. In this case, it was the community’s reaction that brought Coker’s and Golden’s conduct to light. We were confident in our decision that it was proper and legal, and now two federal courts have said so.”
Cameron, however, said that the officers’ living arrangements would not impact their work or the community.
“[The] plaintiffs presented expert testimony that the living arrangements, based on sincere love, being open and consensual, would not interfere with the officers’ performance of duties,” Cameron said.