Monday, July 29, 2013

There are Claims and then there are Claims

Reuters reported recently about a police officer who has filed a workers' compensation claim in California. It got picked up by Yahoo, and is on their page this morning. According to their report, police lieutenant John Pike was photographed "casually dousing student demonstrators in the face with a can of pepper spray as they sat on the ground at UC Davis," back in 2011 during a student protest. They note that Mr. Pike is no longer part of the police force. 

Following some public outcry and a "scathing" report about the incident, the university has paid one million dollars to settle with the 21 students involved. The students reported issues with trauma, falling grades and panic attacks. 


Now the former police officer is seeking workers' compensation benefits from the university. He claims he suffered "unspecified psychiatric and nervous system damage" as a result of his battery on the protesting students. Although the university Chancellor asked prosecutors to consider charging the officers involved, no charges were brought for the battery, the District Attorney "determined there was no grounds on which to bring a case."

Now the officer who sprayed the students will go to a workers' compensation hearing in August. This will be an opportunity for the two parties to see eye-to-eye and resolve their differences. It sounds somewhat similar to the mediation process in Florida. If it is not successful, then the case "would likely go to trial" according to the Reuters' report. 

Comments on the Yahoo version of the article were generally not supportive of former officer Pike. Some were downright insulting. Some comments questioned the decision of the prosecutor. Some questioned the prosecutor's competency. 

This story made me think about so many stories we see in the media, each a rush to judgement. The public can be quick to judgement, and less than circumspect. The news media provides a short story, with the facts it elects to provide. It is possible that these public prognosticators responding to the article are correct in their criticism of former officer Pike, and it is also possible that the officer's claims is meritorious under the provisions of California law. I am not familiar enough with that state's statute to comment, and probably would not comment if I were familiar. 

My point, however, is that we have a process for determining these questions, "due process." I had a student ask me once how much process is actually "due." I cannot remember the case where the court said so, but the answer is simply "enough." In other words, there is no "correct" answer, as how much process is due depends upon the interest that is being protected. The more important the property right, the greater process should be due. 

At the end of the day though, the opinion of the public has a place. The public should express their opinion to their representatives in the legislative branch and their executive authority. The formation of laws should include as much public discourse and input as possible. That is part of the ideal of democracy, that the public opinion is taken into account in making laws. The public should take as much interest in the laws that are being passed as they do in the articles on Yahoo or other news sites.

The adjudicatory process is different from the legislative process. It is not process for public opinion. It is not a process for decisions made, and determinations issued, based upon the modicum of information that is provided by a news story. It is a place for any person to have a reasonable opportunity to present their claim, grievance, or defense. It is a place for all of the relevant, admissible evidence to be presented by each side to an impartial arbiter. It is a place where decisions should come from such an open public process after the all important opportunity to be heard. 

I hope the public can one day come to appreciate the need for a fair process, a "due process." The parties, all of the parties, deserve such a process. Whether the claim or defense seems persuasive, at first blush, or not, the parties deserve to have their chance to be heard. 

It will be interesting to see how this particular claim concludes after each side has had that opportunity to put their best case forward and an impartial adjudicator has made a decision as to how this fits under the California law. If citizens are dissatisfied with the results of that process, then they can contact their legislator with their thoughts and seek to change the law to conform to whatever outcome they think "should have" come from the case.  

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