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April 13, 2011

Work related investigations

Work related investigations
Cerrone v Cahill, USDC, NDNY, 84 F. Supp. 2d 330

An investigation is being conducted by the appointing authority concerning alleged misconduct by an employee.

1. Do the same rules that apply when the appointing authority conducts an investigation involving alleged work-related misconduct control when the appointing authority is investigating alleged off-duty misconduct?

2. Is there any difference between an investigation by an appointing authority for the purpose of filing administrative disciplinary charges against an employee and its investigation directed towards bringing criminal charges against the individual?

As the Cerrone case demonstrates, if the focus of the investigation is criminal rather than administrative, different rules and safeguards control.

State Police Sergeant Thomas Cerrone filed a law suit in federal district court contending that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated in the course of his being investigated concerning “some sort of cover-up” related to his role in an investigation of a hit and run accident that occurred on April 3, 1993.

According to the decision, Cerrone reviewed and signed an accident report prepared by Trooper Robert Gregory that was alleged to be facially insufficient and contained false information. Sometime later, a letter signed by Ed Scott stating that Rory Knapp, the brother of State Trooper Timothy Knapp, left the scene of an accident on April 3, 1993 was received by the Division of State Police. Ed Scott denied writing the letter and the letter writer was never positively identified.

On January 19, 1995, Cerrone was stopped by investigators, placed in an unmarked police car and taken to a hotel for questioning about the hit and run incident.

Cerrone was given a Miranda warning and advised that he was the target of a criminal investigation. The investigators did not have a warrant for their action. After being questioned for six hours, Cerrone was permitted to leave when he agreed to take a polygraph test.

One of the recognized exceptions to the prohibition against warrant less searches and seizures is work-related investigations. Cerrone argued that in this case, the investigation was criminal rather than work related and thus he was entitled to the protections of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Noting that the procedures governing administrative investigations set out in the applicable Taylor Law agreement were not implemented in the course of Cerrone’s interrogation, Judge Thomas J. McAvoy agreed that the basic purpose of the investigation was criminal rather than administrative in nature.

The court said that the distinction between searches and seizures for the purpose of criminal prosecution and those undertaken for work related or administrative purposes is critical and many courts upholding a standard lower than probable cause [in work related investigations] have recognized that the lower standard is not appropriate in the criminal arena.

Thus, observed Judge McAvoy, if Cerrone was seized or arrested without probable cause, his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The court also noted that the available evidence prior to Cerrone’s being questioned revealed little linking him, as opposed to other officers, to the alleged cover-up.

The decision sets out the following basic principles to be followed in investigation of employee misconduct:

1. Where a search or seizure is conducted by a government employer to further a criminal investigation, the traditional requirement of probable cause is necessary and the individual is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

2. Government employers cannot avoid the traditional Fourth Amendment safeguards applicable in the context of criminal investigations simply by labeling a criminal search work-related.

Law enforcement agencies may have greater difficulty here than other government employers. Typically, a non-law enforcement agency’s investigation of alleged misconduct looks towards filing administrative disciplinary charges against an individual. As the court ruled in Biehunik v Felicetta, 441 F.2d 228, Fourth Amendment rights do not apply in investigations of work-related misconduct.

In contrast, the very nature of investigations by law enforcement agencies of its personnel often tends to blur the line between administrative investigation for the purpose of initiating administrative disciplinary action and an investigation of the same or a related incident for the purpose of bring criminal charges against the individual. Accordingly, the distinctions identified by Judge McAvoy in the Cerrone case should be kept in mind when investigations into alleged employee misconduct are initiated by a law enforcement agency.

However, in Dombrowski v Safir, decided by the Appellate Division, First Department, 269 AD2d 161, the court upheld the termination of New York City police officer Kenneth J. Dombrowski as a result of his refusal to answer questions directly and narrowly relating to his official duties.

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