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Police officers treated as public officials for purposes of libel suits

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From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 33.

Police officers who bring defamation suits in Massachusetts are public officials and thus have to prove actual malice to prevail, the state’s high court ruled in June.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had previously said that the weight of authority leaned toward classifying police officers as public officials but declined to decide the issue.

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Walter Sadowsky Jr. and his father provided evidence against a man accused of writing false prescriptions from his pharmacy in 1989. The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to house arrest for two years.

In a 1991 letter to state police officials, Sadowsky said that state trooper William Rotkiewicz Jr., the son of the pharmacy owner, had been harassing him. Sadowsky said that at various times the trooper had pulled him over, given him the finger, “made his hand into the shape of a gun and pointed it into his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and mouthed the words ‘son of a bitch’ as he drove past.” The letter also alleged that the trooper was involved in illegal sales from another business his father owned, a package liquor store. An investigation concluded that the charges were “not sustained,” but the department’s internal affairs charged the trooper with “conduct unbecoming an officer,” based primarily on another complaint from an officer involved in the pharmacy investigation. Rotkiewicz then resigned from the police force.

Four months later, Rotkiewicz sued Sadowsky for defaming him and causing him emotional distress.

In deciding the case, a Greenfield Superior Court jury was told to treat the police officer as a private citizen instead of a public official. A public official would have had to prove that the letter was written with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.

In 1994 the jury awarded the officer $81,000 for the defamation claim and $75,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Sadowsky appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. The high court reversed the verdict, finding that the “broad powers vested in police officers and the great potential for abuse of those powers, as well as police officers’ high visibility within and impact on a community,” warranted the higher standard of proof.

In determining whether a government employee is a public official, the high court said courts must consider whether the employee “has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds it, beyond the general interest in the qualifications and performance of all government employees.” The position must be one which would invite public scrutiny of the person holding it, the court held.

The court specified that “even patrol-level police officers such as the plaintiff” are public officials for purposes of defamation suits. Patrolmen necessarily exercise state power, and although they do not set policy for the department, their misconduct can cause “significant deprivation of constitutional rights and personal freedoms, not to mention bodily injury and financial loss,” the court held, quoting a federal appellate decision. Because of the great potentiality for social harm, discussions of police performance should not be inhibited, the court concluded.

The Supreme Judicial Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if actual malice was present.