PBA lawsuit against Division brings to light issue of union representation

The PBA filed a very important lawsuit against the Division of State Police at State Supreme Court regarding our members’ rights during Division investigations, and more specifically, critical incidents. The PBA is fighting Division through many different avenues to address their harsh and often unfair discipline system, and this lawsuit demanding rights for our members to have union representation is just the latest legal offense we have taken on this important issue. 

The Times Union newspaper of Albany obviously recognized the importance and magnitude of this lawsuit because they printed an article in this morning’s edition which was placed on the front page of the paper. The article is copied below. We intend to keep fighting on this front to ensure that PBA members’ rights are secured and protected.

Troopers’ suit claims inquiries violate rights

Their union sues State Police over lack of representation in internal investigations


First published: Monday, January 30, 2006

ALBANY — New York’s troopers are accusing State Police officials of violating their rights by denying them access to lawyers or union representation when they are involved in serious incidents such as shootings or fatal crashes.

It’s the second time in less than two years that the union representing more then 3,500 troopers has sued State Police over a claim that their civil rights are being violated.

One of the cases involves Trooper Tate M. Higgins, 27, who is credited with saving a Rensselaer County sheriff’s deputy by killing a suspect who was firing a shotgun at them during a standoff two years ago in Schaghticoke.

Higgins and other troopers in similar situations were denied access to a lawyer or union representative until after they had been questioned by State Police officials and provided written details about what happened, the lawsuit claims.

The statements are sometimes given to the law enforcement agency conducting a criminal investigation or submitted to a grand jury, court papers said.

"The State Police has a peculiar belief that troopers do not have constitutional rights," said Dan DeFedericis, president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State Troopers. "That point could not be more vehemently opposed by this union."

DeFedericis and other union officials filed the claim on behalf of five troopers who were involved in civilian deaths attributed to crashes with state vehicles or at roadblocks they were manning.

"A genuine controversy exists between the parties as to the rights of members to legal and union representation during the critical incident investigation," the lawsuit states.

The troopers have asked a state Supreme Court justice to issue a permanent injunction barring State Police from continuing the practices.

"We categorically reject the contention that members of the State Police are entitled to consult with counsel in these types of critical incident investigations," said State Police Chief Counsel Glenn Valle. "These are not criminal investigations."

Information a supervisor takes involuntarily from a trooper is not usable in court, Valle said. "In fact, we go to great measures … to make sure any information received is kept completely away from the criminal case."

The investigations relate to internal operations and are conducted to protect the public, he said, adding, "In most of these cases the trooper has done nothing wrong. Troopers have the same rights as everyone else. No more, no less."

Another claim filed in 2004, which is pending, says troopers are routinely threatened with disciplinary action if they refuse to provide their confidential medical records.

Valle said anyone who refuses can no longer be a trooper.

The lawsuit underscores a strained relationship between management and the troopers’ union.

Earlier this month, an appellate court upheld a state Public Employment Relations Board ruling that Valle committed an improper employer practice by banning off-duty troopers from wearing union pins in court.

The dime-size PBA lapel insignia had been the subject of a protracted court battle since 2002, when Valle barred wearing the pin during criminal trials.

That decision came after then-Rensselaer County District Attorney Kenneth Bruno complained that the speedy acquittal of a former trooper at a trial in Brunswick Town Court might have been influenced by the pin that another trooper, who was off-duty, wore while sitting in court next to the defendant.

In the case, union officials said management does provide members with a right to counsel and union representation at "the interrogative stage." But that usually takes place after the troopers have been questioned and ordered to provide a written statement.

"As the legal climate becomes more complex, the need to protect our troopers from overzealous investigations becomes more pressing," said PBA Treasurer Robert Hovey.

Valle said the information taken at the scene is for everyone’s protection.

"The supervisor needs to know how many individuals there were," he said. "Do we need dogs to track fugitives in the woods, or helicopters? Were there shots fired that went into a house and struck a women in her living room? The questions are necessary to do our jobs."

Click here for a link to the Times Union newspaper