An arbitration panel reversed the City of South Lake Tahoe’s decision to terminate Police Officer John Spaeth and awarded back pay and benefits. Officer Spaeth and Mastagni Holstedt, APC, attorney Steven W. Welty disproved allegations of dishonesty, excessive force and false imprisonment, and showed that Spaeth’s actions during a traffic stop did not warrant termination. Spaeth’s exemplary work record and the City’s lack of progressive discipline showed that his termination was unjustified.
During his years as a police officer for the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, Spaeth was recognized for his high performance in DUI enforcement. On June 17, 2012, at around 2 a.m., Spaeth observed a car weaving in and out of its lane. The car crossed the white fog line on the side of the road and was traveling approximately 30 miles per hour in a 40-mile-an-hour zone. The driver also made an unnecessarily wide right turn. Based on the time of night, the erratic driving and the area’s history of problems with drunk drivers, Spaeth suspected the driver was intoxicated and stopped the vehicle.
Spaeth checked the driver’s license and registration, and attempted to explain to the driver why he had stopped him. The driver insisted that he had not done anything wrong because he was not speeding, and claimed he had not committed any traffic violations. Spaeth determined that the driver was not intoxicated and decided not to issue a citation. However, just as Spaeth handed back the driver’s paperwork, the driver made a comment similar to “Don’t act like you’re some sort of hero.”
At this point, Spaeth decided to issue a traffic citation for the driver unintention-
ally leaving a traffic lane. He was not angry with the driver’s comment, but felt that the driver did not understand that he had committed traffic violations. Also, Spaeth wanted to lend more validity
to the stop.
Spaeth demanded that the driver give back the documents and reached into the car to retrieve them. The driver refused to release the documents and they both began pulling on the paperwork. The driver then grabbed Spaeth’s forearm. Spaeth grabbed the driver’s arm and placed him in a modified twist lock. He ordered the driver to get out of the vehicle. The driver finally complied, and Spaeth handcuffed him and put him in his patrol vehicle to finish his investigation without further incident. Spaeth determined that the driver’s actions did not rise to the level of battery on a peace officer, and issued a traffic citation. He then released the driver.
When Spaeth returned to the Department, he verbally notified his supervisor of the incident. The next day, the driver filed a complaint with the Department. Spaeth completed a written report of the incident pursuant to his supervisor’s orders. Internal affairs investigated the incident and upheld 16 findings against Spaeth. Spaeth appealed the findings to Chief Brian Uhler and the City Manager, who upheld violations pertaining to performance, reasonableness of force, reporting use of force, required documentation and false imprisonment.
The arbitration panel overturned the City’s allegations, finding that termination was unwarranted. The City claimed that Spaeth “submitted false information regarding the stop to justify his actions.” But Spaeth’s description of the events surrounding the incident was consistent at every stage of the proceedings. A retired deputy district attorney and veteran officer reviewed the internal affairs investigation and did not find any credibility issues. The officer testified that if he were in the same position, he would have cited the driver for traffic violations regardless of whether the driver was intoxicated. Even the City Manager admitted that Spaeth had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. Spaeth had no motivation to lie about the driver’s erratic driving.
The City’s allegations of excessive force were also improper. The dashboard video showed a minimal use of force, and Spaeth did not deploy any strikes or takedowns. The panel determined that Spaeth was justified in using a minimum amount of force to obtain the information he officially requested, after it was refused and after the driver used force to prevent him from obtaining the documentation. Moreover, the driver had been angry and confrontational during the entire conversation. The driver was still seated inside the car when he began to resist Spaeth’s efforts to obtain the documentation. The vehicle had not been searched and Spaeth did not know whether the driver or passengers had weapons inside the vehicle. With these factors in mind, the panel found that Spaeth’s use of force
The City’s allegations of false imprisonment were meritless. The driver was only placed in a police vehicle after demonstrating that he would not cooperate with Spaeth’s investigation. The driver’s refusal to cooperate required Spaeth to remove him to complete the investigation. The panel found that “This does not amount to ‘false imprisonment.’”
Finally, the panel found that the City’s allegations that Spaeth failed to report the incident did not rise to the level of a terminable offense. Spaeth verbally notified his supervisor of the incident the same night, and completed his written report the next night. He was not aware that the City required a written report every time a suspect is handcuffed, because it is very rare that someone is handcuffed and not subsequently taken to jail. He felt that informing his supervisor was sufficient notification. Furthermore, his supervisor did not order him to write a report until the next night, and the City’s policy does not specify when the written report for detention without arrest is due. The panel found that even if this constituted a violation, it was a minor infraction that did not rise to the level of a terminable offense.
None of Spaeth’s actions supported the City’s decision to terminate him and strip him of his career. His strong work record and the City’s lack of progressive discipline also persuaded the panel that any alleged mistake in judgment could have been easily corrected in other ways. The panel correctly decided to reverse the City’s excessive discipline by reinstating Spaeth and awarding him back pay and benefits. This exceptional outcome could not have been accomplished without the assistance of the PORAC Legal Defense Fund.
About the Author
Steven Welty is a senior associate at Mastagni Holstedt, APC, who focuses his practice on labor and employment law representation, fitness for duty and disability retirement litigation. For over a decade, he has provided outstanding representation of public safety clients in administrative investigations, disciplinary actions and appeals.