Amid heavy national scrutiny of police conduct, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said a Miami citizens' panel did not have the authority to subpoena an officer to testify as part of an investigation into a traffic stop.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 34-page opinion, said the city-created investigative panel was barred from issuing a subpoena to police Lt. Freddy D'Agastino in 2009 because of a state law known as the “Police Officers' Bill of Rights.” The court pointed, in part, to the Legislature imposing an “elaborate interrogation framework of rights and obligations” that police agencies must follow in interrogating officers.
The ruling said giving a citizens' investigative panel the ability to subpoena officers would conflict with the state law and, as a result, be unconstitutional.
“Indeed, the power to issue a subpoena to a citizen and to enforce it with the power of contempt is among the most powerful tools a government may wield,” said the ruling, written by Justice R. Fred Lewis. “Moreover, if we were to hold otherwise, nothing would preclude the formation of other bodies similar to the (citizens' panel) by other governmental units with concurrent geographical jurisdiction over an officer, all empowered with subpoena power and potentially subjecting an officer to repeated governmental pressure over an extended time, rendering the limitations provision in the (Police Officers' Bill of Rights) meaningless.
“We therefore hold that the (panel's) invocation of its subpoena power as applied to police officers is unconstitutional because compelled interrogation of police officers in investigations that could lead to their discipline is preempted by the (Police Officers' Bill of Rights).”
The case stemmed from a complaint filed in 2009 alleging misconduct by D'Agastino during a traffic stop. The Miami police department's internal affairs division investigated the allegations, including interviewing D'Agastino under oath, and said its findings were “inconclusive” because of a lack of sufficient evidence, according to the Supreme Court ruling.
The citizens' panel, formally known as the City of Miami Civilian Investigative Panel, then issued a subpoena to D'Agastino ordering him to appear and testify. D'Agastino filed a lawsuit, which was subsequently combined with a case filed by the Fraternal Order of Police.
The Supreme Court on Thursday focused on the subpoena issue and turned down broader arguments that the Police Officers' Bill of Rights “preempts” the overall city ordinance governing the citizens panel.
Justices agreed to decide the case after appeals courts took different stances on the powers of such citizens' panels. The 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with the Miami panel in the D'Agastino case, but that decision conflicted with a ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal in a case from Orange County, according to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruling did not detail the nature of the allegations against D'Agastino. But police conduct, including in cases involving traffic stops, has drawn widespread attention in recent years —- an issue that Lewis appeared to hint at in his opinion.
“The many and multiple complexities and conflicts generated in today's society have produced numerous difficulties inherent in the delivery of police work and services,” Lewis wrote. “The city of Miami, along with other governmental units, have responded to some of those difficulties inherent in modern police work by creating citizen review and investigative panels.”