Law Enforcement Bill of Rights – Special privileges or necessary protection?

The Bill of Rights is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. They were created by the Founding Fathers to bestow greater constitutional protection of individual liberties and specific prohibitions on governmental powers. The rights spelled out in these amendments were considered natural rights of individuals which were fundamental to a free society. Every person within the United States of America is guaranteed the protection these amendments provide.

Most citizens are readily familiar with the general concepts covered by the Bill of Rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to an attorney, right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are fantastic but did you know that there is another bill of rights under Iowa law? It is called "Peace officer, public safety, and emergency personnel bill of rights" and it can be found in Iowa Code section 80F.1. That is right, law enforcement and emergency personnel have their own special bill of rights above and beyond those articulated by our Founding Fathers. Instead of inalienable rights necessary for a free society, these are special rights created by the Iowa Legislature just for law enforcement and emergency personnel.

What Are They? The rights specifically articulated in Iowa Code section 80F.1 can be summarized as follows:

  1. A formal administrative investigation of an officer must be commenced and completed in a reasonable period of time and an officer shall be immediately notified of the results of the investigation when the investigation is completed.
  2. An officer shall not be compelled to submit to a polygraph examination against his or her will.
  3. An officer who is a subject of a complaint, shall at a minimum, be provided a written summary of the complaint prior to an interview. Collective bargaining agreements may provide additional rights to the officer.
  4. An officer being interviewed regarding a complaint must be advised by the interviewer that the officer must answer the questions but his or her answers may not be used against the officer in any subsequent criminal proceedings.
  5. At a minimum the interview of the officer must be audio recorded.
  6. The officer has the right to have legal counsel present during the interview as well as a union representative at his or her own expense.
  7. If the investigation results in the removal, discharge, suspension or other disciplinary action against the officer, the officer must be provided any witness statements and the investigative agency's report upon his or her request.
  8. The interview must be conducted at a facility of the investigating agency.
  9. If the interview is conducted when the officer is off duty the officer must be compensated for his or her time.
  10. The officer has the right to pursue civil remedies against a citizen arising out of the filing of a false complaint against the officer.

All of these rights are IN ADDITION to any rights granted pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement or other law.

Who do they apply to? All certified law enforcement officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, corrections officers, detention officers, jailers, probation and parole officers, or any other law enforcement officer certified by the Iowa law enforcement academy and employed by a municipality, county, or state agency.

When do they apply? During any informal or formal administrative investigation into a complaint against the officer.

What is the big deal? Why do law enforcement officers need special rights any more than any other employee of a governmental subdivision or private business? Think about it. At a minimum, every officer accused of misconduct by a citizen is FIRST provided a written summary of the allegations PRIOR to being interviewed. Any interview that is conducted must be audio recorded and the officer is entitled to consult with legal counsel and have his or her attorney present during any interview. They can't be polygraphed against their will to see if they are telling the truth except in very limited circumstances. The interview may NOT be used against them in a criminal prosecution and in the event they are disciplined to any degree, they are entitled to copies of any and all witness statements and reports associated with the investigation. They can then turn around and sue the complaining person if they contend it was a false accusation.

Imagine if all employees of businesses across the entire nation were legally entitled to be given a detailed description of of what they were being accused of prior to being interviewed by their employer. Imagine further that they could have an attorney go over the accusations with them prior to the interview and be present in that interview which is recorded to ensure that what is said is completely and accurately documented. Polygraphs couldn't be used to check the truthfulness of the employees answers and nothing said in those interviews could be used in a criminal prosecution. Oh, and if the employee is disciplined to any degree, they would be entitled to a copy of the witness statements and investigative reports with the right to sue the whistle blower. Would anybody, anywhere, ever be fired? Would anyone want to make a complaint or blow the whistle against a fellow employee?

Maybe this explains how bad police officers remain on the police force even after being convicted of criminal offenses or being initially terminated by a department. Just as important, maybe this explains how and why it is so difficult for law enforcement officers to be convicted of criminal offenses arising out of their conduct while on duty. Sure the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights does not apply to criminal prosecutions with the exception that what is said during internal interviews cannot be used in a criminal prosecution, but, almost all criminal charges filed against officers follow an initial internal investigation. There is a significant strategic advantage for a criminal suspect that is first provided the details of the accusations before being interviewed by law enforcement. No other profession or citizen is legally entitled to that advantage. Should law enforcement really be given this special treatment?

The counter argument to the cynicism that many may voice upon hearing about these special privileges is that Law Enforcement Bill of Rights are necessary to ensure "prompt, truthful and complete internal investigations of law enforcement misconduct." Some of these rights certainly protect the integrity of that process and arguably should be applicable to all citizens. However, the argument can be made that many of those rights are more designed to protect officers that may have done something inappropriate than they are to facilitate the "truth finding process." That being said, it is hard to blame law enforcement and emergency personnel for taking advantage of legal rights that are given specially to them by the Iowa Legislature. Anyone in their position would likely do the same thing. It still begs the question though, are the Iowa Law Enforcement Bill of Rights special privileges or necessary protections?