NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – A police officer who said he was punished for complaining about arrest quotas got his lawsuit reinstated Thursday after an appeals court said his criticisms were covered by free speech protections.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision dismissing Officer Craig Matthews’ suit, marking the second time the case has been thrown out and revived on appeal. The courts have yet to rule on the merits of Matthews’ suit, so far, the legal fight has centered on the extent of his First Amendment rights as a government worker.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented Matthews, hailed the ruling as a victory for such employees’ free speech protections.
“Today’s decision protects the ability of police officers to speak out against this kind of misconduct when they see it,” associate legal director Christopher Dunn said in a statement. “New York City’s finest should be applauded when they expose abuse, not abused and retaliated against.”
The city Law Department said it was reviewing the decision.
The New York Police Department has said it doesn’t have arrest or summons quotas.
Matthews’ suit said his Bronx precinct did have arrest quotas, supervisors kept color-coded records of who met them and officers were punished when they fell short. Matthews said he was harassed and got bad evaluations and assignments when he objected, the suit said.
A trial court judge ruled last year that Matthews’ complaints were not constitutionally protected because he spoke as an NYPD employee in the course of doing his job, not as a citizen. The Supreme Court has allowed some limits on public workers’ speech rights, saying that government couldn’t function if every workplace decision could become a First Amendment case.
The city argued that Matthews’ criticisms stemmed from his official duties and so weren’t protected speech.
Appeals judges disagreed, noting that the officer had no role in setting or giving feedback on police policy.
“Matthews’s speech to the precinct’s leadership in this case was not what he was `employed to do,”’ the judges wrote. “He spoke as a citizen.”
The ruling positions the case to return to a trial court for further proceedings.
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