A Deputy who was previously employed at the Baltimore Sheriff’s Office won a legal battle this week. He had been fired for speaking to the media about a raid in which another deputy was shot. Former Deputy James Lane was vindicated when the court found that Sheriff John Anderson did violate Lane’s first amendment rights when he cast his doubts on an internal investigation to the media. They found he was entitled to $160,000 cash settlement and to be reinstated.
The court made a bold statement that will serve as a precedent for future whistleblower cases to come. They found that Lane’s case had supporting previous rulings. They believed it did meet criteria for a retaliatory action taken against him. “No reasonable official could have believed that a law enforcement officer’s statements to media outlets regarding misconduct and corruption surrounding a police-involved shooting lacked First Amendment protection.” The final approval of the decree depends on passage by a board including the governor, however, this appears to be more of a formality and is expected to pass.
Lane was shot, along with Deputy Kenyatta Washington in 2008. Both men survived their injuries and had killed their attacker. That’s what the internal investigation found, however Lane had suspicions that he was actually shot by law enforcement. He approached the police brass about his concerns, but they were dismissed and he was told to drop it. Lane believed there was a cover up going on. He decided to talk to the press and gave an interview about the shooting. The Sheriff’s department disciplinary board brought him up on internal charges and thought he should receive a five day suspension for speaking out. The Sheriff rejected the board’s decision and felt that Lane needed to be fired because he could “no longer trust” his credibility and character.
The case was a roller-coaster through the court system. Initial lawsuits were rejected and rejected again on appeal before finally finding some traction in the 4th US Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia. This final ruling sets a major precedent for officers who speak out about potential misconduct. According to Howard B. Hoffman, Lane’s attorney, if the Sheriff declines to give Lane his job back, the settlement “would unravel and the suit would continue.” He doubts this will be the case, as the Sheriff has made statements attesting to wanting to move on.
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