“Garrity” statements: New Georgia Case Law

In 1967, The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion entitled, Garrity v. State of NJ. The case is perhaps the most important ruling regarding the rights of LEOs. In that case, the USSC held that officers who were forced to either incriminate themselves in a criminal investigation or lose their jobs did not make voluntary statements to investigators. Therefore, those statements could not be used against them in a criminal prosecution. The opinion is a great read. You can read the entire opinion here.

The Garrity opinion, as you can imagine, has been studied and examined by courts and departments all over the United States. Fortunately, the critical points in Garrity hold true today. Those points are based on a few simple principles. First, a department has an obligation and right to investigate allegations of misconduct and incidents that involve their LEOs. These investigations are focused on clearing officers, determining the effectiveness of policies and maintaining the integrity of the department. Second, the department should be able to compel officers to comply with internal investigations. This principle is based the focus of internal investigations. Third, a LEO, like any other citizen, has the right to remain silent during any criminal investigation. As Justice Douglas stated in the opinion, “We conclude that policemen, like teachers and lawyers, are not relegated to a watered-down version of constitutional rights.”

This week, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an opinion entitled, State v. Thompson. You can read the full opinion here. Following a shooting, Dekalb County Police Officer Torrey Thompson gave statements to internal affairs investigators and criminal investigators. Prior to the statements and two “walk-throughs” of the scene, he was told that he was not permitted to leave the area to avoid the media gathered at the scene. The Georgia Supreme Court held that Officer Thompson’s “subjective belief” that he would be punished if he did not cooperate with the criminal investigators was enough for the court to find that his statements to the investigators were NOT voluntary. Therefore, the State could not use those statements against him in the criminal case. It is important to note that Officer Thompson told the court that the department’s policy manual required him to participate in investigations, he was told he was not free to leave, he was never explicitly told that he had to cooperate and answer questions and the criminal and internal investigations were taking place simultaneously. The Georgia Supreme Court determined that the trial court must examine the “totality of the circumstances” to decide if the officer had a reasonable subjective belief that he was forced to provide the statements at issue. If the officer reasonably believed, based upon the totality of the circumstances, that he was required to answer the questions of the criminal investigators, those statements cannot be used against the officer in a criminal trial.

So, a few things to consider. Are you familiar with your department’s policies regarding investigations? Are you familiar with and able to articulate the laws of self defense? Most important, do you still believe you should not have a lawyer present at the scene of a shooting? Something to think about now…before the shooting.

Stay safe.

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