After several days of arbitration, David J. Garcia of Goyette & Associates was successful in obtaining an order that overturned the termination of Yuba County Correctional Officer Elijah Etchegoin.
This matter began when the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department initiated an internal affairs investigation regarding various allegations including primarily that Etchegoin had been arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence and later acting inappropriately toward the arresting officers and deputies. The underlying incident began on July 20, 2013 when Etchegoin returned home from work at 11:30 p.m. As Etchegoin prepared for bed, he took a prescribed sleep aid. During the same time period, Etchegoin drank an alcoholic beverage. As Etchegoin began to fall asleep, a friend summoned Etchegoin to assist her in retrieving her boyfriend from a local bar. Etchegoin obliged, and his friend picked him up at his home and drove Etchegoin to the bar. A few minutes after arriving, Etchegoin drove a car from the bar, and was stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence. During the incident, Etchegoin made rude remarks toward the police officers.
The Yuba County Sheriff’s Department initiated an internal affairs investigation. Yuba County Sheriff Department’s Captain Ron Johnson conducted the investigation and interviewed Etchegoin. The Captain provided Etchegoin with a written Notice that he would be questioned regarding the events that occurred on June 21, 2013. However, during the interview the Captain began asking questions about additional allegations that were not included in the Notice. As a result, counsel for Etchegoin immediately objected to the additional areas of questioning that were not properly identified in the Notice. Counsel objected that the additional areas of questioning were outside the scope of the Notice, and violated Etchegoin’s rights under the Peace Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (“POBR”). The Captain brazenly ignored the objection, and continued with the interview. After concluding the investigation, the Department terminated Etchegoin from his employment with Yuba County. Etchegoin filed an appeal of the termination contending the discipline was excessive.
At the termination appeal hearing, Etchegoin admitted some of the underlying conduct. However, Etchegoin testified that in his eight years of employment with the Department he always received satisfactory evaluations, and had never received any discipline. In fact, Etchegoin had received several commendations from the Department during his tenure. Likewise, Etchegoin served in various assignments, some of which were akin to a special assignment. By all accounts, Etchegoin’s personnel file demonstrated that he excelled in the workplace.
On cross examination Sheriff Steve Durfor testified that discipline is composed of two components: a punitive component and a corrective component. Interestingly, the Sheriff also admitted that he employed other deputies with similar driving convictions. When pressed, the Sheriff admitted that he also promoted a few of them after their convictions. A different perspective on the appropriateness of the severity of the penalty began to emerge.
At the conclusion of the case, counsel for Etchegoin argued that some discipline was warranted. However, the termination was solely punitive. Counsel for Etchegoin argued the discipline should also contain a corrective component (consistent with the Sheriff’s testimony). Under the facts, this was the type of case where a long term employee should be given the opportunity to better himself (via counseling), and return to the workplace as a productive member of the Department.
Following the appeal hearing, the arbitrator submitted his “Recommendation and Findings” to the Yuba County Board of Supervisors. The arbitrator found that Captain Johnson violated Etchegoin’s POBR rights when he questioned Etchegoin about matters that were not properly noticed. The arbitrator found that, “the County violated the Public Safety Officer’s Procedural Bill of Rights Act when [the Captain] raised questions about the event of May 24, 2013 without prior notice of its intent to examine that matter and it exacerbated that violation when it proceeded to question Appellant on that matter over the timely objection from his counsel.” The arbitrator found that the “Captain who is responsible for the…Department’s Professional Standards Unit [was] undoubtedly aware of the mandates set forth in POBR…and intentionally violated Appellant’s rights.” After summarizing the remaining evidence, the arbitrator held that Etchegoin was not terminated for just cause, and reduced Etchegoin’s termination to a suspension along with other requirements including a counseling component.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – David J. Garcia is an associate labor attorney with Goyette & Associates. He represents law enforcement officers throughout California. He represented Elijah Etchegoin throughout his administrative appeal.