NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MARYLAND · Libel · July 30, 2007
Police officers can be sued over warrant statements
July 30, 2007 · Maryland’s high court held unanimously last week that police officers can be held liable if they intentionally make defamatory statements in applications for search warrants or in statements to the news media.
Last year, former police officers Vicki Mengel and Robert Leo Donald Smith sued fellow officers Scott Danielczyk and John Jendrek and alleged that they made false statements in order to search Mengel and Smith’s police lockers during an internal investigation into a woman’s claim that she was raped by a police officer in the squad where Mengel and Smith worked. Mengel and Smith further alleged that Danielczyk and Jendrek leaked those statements to the news media.
Writing for the majority, Judge Alan M. Wilner said that since a police officer’s presentation of a search warrant often occurs “at the judge’s home during the evening hours, with little or no ability to test the accuracy of” the officer’s statements, there is a great interest in ensuring that the officer’s statements are truthful.
“Absent some knowledge to the contrary,” Wilner wrote, “the judge necessarily assumes good faith and truthfulness” when considering an officer’s statements. It is often those statements alone that must “suffice to establish probable cause to believe that incriminating evidence will be found at the place or on the person to be searched.”
Although the court ruled that officers do not have an absolute privilege against defamation lawsuits, officers are shielded “from liability for non-malicious negligent conduct committed in the performance of discretionary acts in furtherance of the officer’s official duties.”
As for the allegation that Danielczyk and Jendrek leaked false statements to the media, the court held that the standard was the same.
“Surely,” Wilner wrote, “there is no absolute privilege or immunity for that kind of conduct; police officers cannot have a greater privilege to disseminate defamatory material to the news media than they have to include it in an application presented to a judge.”
No matter what the context, the court said that any immunity that a police officer has by virtue of his or her position “is subject to being lost if it is abused — if the officer knows that the statements are false or makes them with reckless disregard of whether they are true or false, or makes them for some improper purpose.”
(Smith v. Danielczyk) — ES