5th Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Termination of Wife-Swapping Deputies

There is an interesting case that would normally fall in the “Hard to Believe” category and remembered only for its entertainment value. Unfortunately, the case comes out of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Therefore, the case sets precedent in the federal court circuit in which we live. The case is Brandon Coker and Michael a Golden v. Julian Whittington and Charles Owens. The case arises out of the Western District of Louisiana (we are in the Eastern District of Louisiana) and involves two Sheriff’s Deputies. Since they are Sheriff’s Deputies, they are at-will employees and do not have Civil Service protection.

The case involves two employees of the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office, Coker and Golden. Coker and Golden swapped wives. Actually, they swapped families. Golden moved into Coker’s house and Coker moved into Golden’s house. Nothing else changed and nobody got divorced. When Chief Deputy Owens learned of this arrangement, he told Golden and Coker that they either went back to their own homes or they would be considered voluntarily terminated. Needless to say, the two deputies did not comply with the Chief Deputy’s instructions. They were terminated for a provision of the Sheriff’s Code of Conduct that states employees must “Conduct yourselves at all times in such a manner as to reflect the high standards of the Bossier Sheriff’s Office … [and] Do not engage in any illegal, immoral, or indecent conduct, nor engage in any legitimate act which, when performed in view of the public, would reflect unfavorabl[y] upon the Bossier Sheriff’s Office.” This is similar to NOPD’s Professionalism rule. They were also charged with failing to notify a supervisor of a change of address within 24 hours.

One thing that is disconcerting about this case is that Coker and Golden lost not once, but twice – Western District and the 5th Circuit. The District Court held that the disciplinary action was to be upheld because the policies at issue are “supported by the rational grounds of preserving a cohesive police force and upholding the public trust and reputation of the Sheriff’s Department.”

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that precedent in the 5th Circuit has uniformly upheld terminations for sexually inappropriate conduct. Furthermore, the Court held that there are no decisions which stand for the proposition that an officer’s freedoms to associate under the 1st Amendment means freedom to associates with the other’s wife before a formal divorce. They went on to say that pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Garcetti, public employees “shed some of their constitutional rights as a legitimate exchange for the privilege of their positions.” They went on to say the rule was not constitutionally vague.

The rest of the justification for the holding speaks best for itself. So, here is the Court’s reasoning:

We find no reversible error of fact or law in the district court’s decision. Sexual decisions between consenting adults take on a different color when the adults are law enforcement officers. Their enforcement duties include, for instance, crimes of human trafficking and spousal abuse that place them in sensitive positions with members of the public. Their involvement in relations that openly and “notoriously” violate the legally sanctioned relationships of marriage and family is likely to besmirch the reputation of the Sheriff’s Department and hinder its ability to maintain public credibility. Moreover, these officers’ extramarital relationships, even if consensual and loving at the outset, have great potential to create internal dissension within the force. Finally, it is not hard to envision how the existence of Coker’s and Golden’s cohabitation with each other’s wives prior to divorce and remarriage might be adversely used in litigation concerning the deputies’ official conduct.

 

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges does not alter applicable law. ––– U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 2598, 192 L.Ed.2d 609 (2015). Whatever ramifications Obergefell may have for sexual relations beyond the approval of same-sex marriage are unstated at best, but Obergefell is expressly premised on the unique and special bond created by the formal marital relationship and children of that relationship. Id. at 2594–95. Obergefell does not create “rights” based on relationships that mock marriage, and no court has so held.

While I don’t think I would recommend house-swapping, I am baffled by the connection between an officer’s ability to investigate human trafficking or domestic violence and the officers’ decisions to swap households. The moral to this story is that, as law enforcement officers, one cannot rely on the Constitution to provide the protection is does for everyone else – at least in the eyes of some ultra conservative jurists.

The case can be downloaded here (.pdf): Coker v. Whittington, 858 F.3d 304, 2017 WL 2240300 (C.A.5 (La.)), 2 (C.A.5 (La.), 2017)

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