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In the "You Should Have Made Up a Better Story" Department, Paterson NJ Cop Fired for Politics Claims He Was Picking Up Yard Sign for Invalid Mother; Supremes

 

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by   Samuel Morris               Godwin Morris Laurenzi Bloomfield

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Former Paterson cop to plead his case today at U.S. Supreme Court

 

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BY SALVADOR RIZZO

STATE HOUSE BUREAU | 

THE RECORD

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A legal battle between the city of Paterson and a former police officer who claims he was demoted as political payback is scheduled for oral argument today at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute began in 2006, when Mayor Joey Torres was running for reelection against Lawrence Spagnola, a former police chief. A police officer who served as Torres' bodyguard spotted another officer, Jeffrey B. Heffernan, carrying a large Spagnola yard sign one day.

Word spread quickly in the Police Department, where the chief of police was a Torres supporter. Heffernan, a 20-year police veteran, was demoted to foot patrol for "overt involvement in a political election."

Heffernan later sued the city for monetary damages. Ten years after he was demoted, the dispute has wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court - one of the biggest free-speech cases in the country.

Heffernan retired in 2011 and has maintained for years that he was not active in Spagnola's campaign. His mother, a Spagnola supporter, was bedridden at the time and had asked for a new yard sign when her first one was stolen.

"I was picking up a sign for my mother, and that's all I was doing," he has said.

That, however, is essentially the reason Heffernan has lost in lower courts over the last six years.

Because Heffernan admitted that he was not personally taking part in any political activity, he could not invoke the free-speech protections in the First Amendment to sue the city for damages, according to the trial and appellate judges who have reviewed his case.

A federal jury at first awarded Heffernan $105,000 in damages in 2009, but the award was later thrown out by a judge. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit eventually ruled in favor of the city in a decision handed down in January 2015.

Heffernan's attorneys are asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 3rd Circuit's decision.

Mark B. Frost, the lead attorney for Heffernan, said the appeals court created an "absurd" result by finding that government employers can demote or fire workers based on mistaken impressions about their political beliefs.

"If a police officer can constitutionally be demoted because his supervisor incorrectly believes that the officer supports a candidate for mayor, then any public employee could be demoted or even fired because her supervisor incorrectly believes that she is a Democrat or a Republican," Frost wrote. "Employees would have to worry about everything they say or do at the office, for fear of leaving the boss with the wrong impression."

If Heffernan had been actively supporting Spagnola, a retaliatory demotion would have been illegal, he adds.

Attorneys for the city of Paterson at the Maryland law firm Goldstein & Russell argue that free-speech protections do not apply to Heffernan, who concedes that he was not making a political statement.

"He seeks constitutional protections while emphatically arguing that in picking up a lawn sign for his mother he was engaged in nothing political at all, but merely doing his mother a favor," the city's attorneys wrote. "This was an act with no more First Amendment significance than picking up a quart of milk and loaf of bread for his mother."

The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear only 75 to 80 cases each year -- out of more than 10,000 requests.

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50 N. Front St., Memphis TN  38103

901 528 1702    901 949 1144

 

established yesterday - subscriptions good until tomorrow - published as news breaks

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In the "You Should Have Made Up a Better Story" Department, Paterson NJ Cop Fired for Politics Claims He Was Picking Up Yard Sign for Invalid Mother; Supremes

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