PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona today filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of a former Mohave County Probation Officer who was fired after adding his name to a Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) letter in support of a California ballot measure to decriminalize marijuana.
“More and more members of the law enforcement community are speaking out against failed drug policies and they don’t give up their right to share their insight and engage in this important debate simply because they receive government paychecks,” said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Daniel Pochoda. “In this case, Mohave County Adult Probation officials decided to punish a public servant who works on the frontlines with communities most affected by drugs, rather than respect his right to speak out on his own time about the need to reform marijuana laws.”
At issue is the unlawful termination of Joe Miller, who worked as a probation officer for the Mohave County Adult Probation Department from January 2007 until December 2010. In June 2010, Miller added his name to a LEAP letter endorsing California’s Proposition 19, an initiative on the state’s November ballot that would have allowed adults age 21 and over to possess and grow small amounts of their own marijuana for personal use. LEAP, which states that its mission is to “educate the public, the media and policy makers about the failure of current [drug] policies,” released the letter on September 13, 2010 and held press conferences in Oakland and Los Angeles declaring its support for the ballot measure.
Miller was one of 32 current and retired members of the law enforcement community who signed the letter titled, “Law Enforcers Say Control and Tax Cannabis to Protect Public Safety.” Co-signers included the District Attorney for the County of Humboldt, California, an Oakland City Attorney, a retired Judge for the Superior Court of Orange County, and the former Chief of Police for the Seattle Police Department. Although the letter identified the law enforcement agencies where the signatories worked, it specifically included a disclaimer stating that: “All agency affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.”
Miller’s supervisor – Chief Adult Probation Officer Friend Walker – found out about the LEAP letter in November, two months after it was released, and then immediately notified him that he failed to comply with the probation department’s code of ethics, which states that employees should “[d]istinguish clearly in any public statement those that are personal views and those that are statements and positions on behalf of an agency.”
Despite the letter’s disclaimer making it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the county, Miller was later terminated on December 10, 2010, for “fail[ing] to maintain neutrality in action and appearance when [he] gave permission to the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organization” and for failing “to include [his] job title and department ‘Deputy Probation Officer, Mohave County Probation Department’ with [his] endorsement of a California ballot proposition posted on-line [sic] on September 13, 2010 . . . .”
“I was terminated not because my service was inadequate, but because my views on drug policy didn’t align with those of Mohave County or my superiors in the Probation Department,” said Miller, whose exemplary work during his four years as a Probation Officer led to a promotion prior to his public statements through LEAP.
“There’s no question Mohave County officials targeted Miller based on his political views,” said ACLU of Arizona cooperating attorney Daniel Bonnett, of the Phoenix-based law firm of Martin & Bonnett. “Government employees have a First Amendment right to speak out on matters of public concern and retaliating against them for exercising their free speech rights is simply un-American.”
The ACLU lawsuit argues that county officials violated Miller’s First Amendment rights by unlawfully retaliating against him for exercising his rights to freedom of association and speech. In addition to Friend, Assistant Chief Probation Officer Elaine Grissom, Mohave County, and the State of Arizona also are listed as defendants.