Can Law Enforcement Officers Commit Any Crime While Off-Duty and Retain Their Pension?

by Michael Sacco

Case Focus

In a unanimous decision in two companion cases, Essex Regional Retirement Board v. Swallow and State Board of Retirement v. O’Hare, 481 Mass. 241 (2019) (Swallow/O’Hare), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has determined that a law enforcement officer will not be required to forfeit his pension after a criminal conviction unless there is a direct link — either factual or legal — between the officer’s off-duty conduct and his position. This is the same standard to which other public employees in Massachusetts are held. This decision startled many in the public pension community. Only the legislature may change the standard to which law enforcement officers are held, by expanding the pension forfeiture statute’s narrow scope.

A Brief History of the Public Pension Forfeiture Law

Pension forfeiture provisions have existed in the retirement statute since the retirement law was codified in Chapter 32 of the Massachusetts General Lawsin 1945. The statute states that if a public employee is convicted of certain enumerated statutory offenses or misappropriation of the employer’s funds or property, the employee forfeits any right to a pension and receives a return of any contributions made to their annuity savings account. In 1986 however, the SJC held in Collatos v. Boston Retirement Board396 Mass. 684 (1986), that the legislature intended G. L. c. 32, § 15 (3A) to require forfeiture of a public employee’s pension only if the employee was convicted of two state crimes, G. L. c. 268A, § 2 (corrupt gifts, offers or promises to influence official acts, corruption of witnesses) and G. L. c. 265, § 25 (attempted extortion), and thus the  public employee’s guilty plea to violating 18 U.S.C. Section 1951 (extortion) would not require pension forfeiture. The SJC construed the statute narrowly because of its penal character.

Shortly after the Collatos decision, the legislature amended the statute by inserting G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4), which provided an intermediate level of pension forfeiture if the criminal conviction was a “violation of the laws applicable to his office or position.” While Section 15 (3A) required a complete forfeiture of pension rights, Section 15 (4) provided that a pension forfeiture would entitle the public employee to a return of his accumulated total deductions (funds withheld from the employee’s weekly check and paid to the retirement system), less any interest accrued thereon.

The first SJC decision interpreting Section 15 (4) was Gaffney v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board, 423 Mass. 1 (1996). In Gaffney, the SJC held that a pension forfeiture was warranted when the superintendent of the Shrewsbury water and sewer department was convicted of larceny by common scheme for stealing the Town’s money and property. Id. The SJC acknowledged that the legislature did not intend that a pension forfeiture should follow any and all criminal convictions. Id. at 5. Rather, “the substantive touchstone intended by the General Court is criminal activity connected with the office or position. . . . Looking to the facts of each case for a direct link between the criminal offense and the member’s office or position best effectuates the legislative intent of § 15 (4).” Id. In Gaffney, the direct factual link between his employment and his criminal conviction was clear, and thus pension forfeiture was warranted.

Criminal Activity Not Limited to On-Duty Conduct

In Maher v. Justices of the Quincy Division of the District Court Department, 67 Mass. App. Ct. 612 (2006), the Appeals Court determined that a public employee’s off-duty criminal conduct can result in pension forfeiture even if the criminal conviction did not involve a violation of a statute that specifically pertains to public employees or, unlike Gaffney, did not involve misappropriating the employer’s funds or property. In Maher, the plaintiff was the chief plumbing and gas inspector for the City of Quincy. Id. at 613. He and another city employee broke into and entered the personnel office at city hall. There, the plaintiff reviewed his personnel file and stole a document or documents from the file. A few weeks later, a new mayor took office. The plaintiff took superannuation retirement and subsequently pleaded guilty breaking and entering in the daytime with intent to commit a felony, wanton destruction of property, and stealing personnel records and various documents. Id. His pension was forfeited, and the Appeals Court upheld the pension forfeiture, specifically referencing Gaffney and stating that the statutory requirement that the criminal activity be connected with the office or position “does not mean that the crime itself must reference public employment or the employee’s particular position or responsibilities.” Id. at 616.

The Durkin and Finneran Decisions

Similarly in Durkin v. Boston Retirement Board, 83 Mass. App. Ct. 116 (2013), a law enforcement officer’s off-duty conduct resulted in forfeiture of his pension. Paul Durkin was a Boston Police Officer who became inebriated off-duty and used his service revolver to shoot a fellow off-duty police officer who was giving him a ride home. Id. at 117. Durkin pleaded guilty to assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and the Boston Retirement Board forfeited his rights to a pension. Id. The Appeals Court upheld the retirement board’s decision, noting that “Durkin engaged in the very type of criminal behavior he was required by law to prevent. This violation was directly related to his position as a police officer as it demonstrated a violation of the public’s trust as well as a repudiation of his official duties. Clearly, at the heart of a police officer’s role is the unwavering obligation to protect life, which Durkin himself recognized at his hearing. His extreme actions violated the integrity of the system which he was sworn to uphold.” Id. at 119.

In State Board of Retirement v. Finneran, 476 Mass. 714 (2017), the SJC discussed the pension forfeiture statute’s twenty-year evolution into two recognized types of “direct links” between a public employee’s position and the crime committed: factual links and legal links. In cases involving factual links, a public employee’s pension is subject to forfeiture under Section 15 (4) only when there is a direct factual connection between the public employee’s crime and position. Id. at 720-21. Surprisingly, the court cited the Durkin case as an example of a direct factual link, noting that that crime had been committed with the police officer’s service revolver. Id. at 721. In cases involving direct legal links, forfeiture is mandated under Section 15 (4) when a public employee commits a crime directly implicating a statute that applies to the employee’s position. Id.

Swallow and O’Hare in the Appeals Court

The Durkin and Finneran decisions implied that the plaintiff in Durkin may have kept his pension had he merely committed the offense with his personal weapon. In Swallow, a police officer who was on administrative leave was with his wife at their home. Swallow/O’Hare, 481 Mass. at 243. Swallow was drinking heavily and, after an argument, he grabbed his wife by the shirt, yelled at her, and waved his personal handgun in her face. Id. As she left the home and walked to a neighbor’s driveway, she heard a single gunshot. Id. Swallow was subsequently arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to assault and battery, discharge of a firearm within 500 feet of a building, assault by means of a dangerous weapon, multiple counts of improper storage of a firearm, and intimidation of a witness. Id. The retirement board forfeited Swallow’s pension, largely relying on Durkin. Id. Although the District and Superior Courts reversed the retirement board’s decision, the Appeals Court reinstated it, noting that Swallow’s “use of a gun to threaten another’s life violated the public’s trust and repudiated his official duties.” Id. at 244. See Essex Reg’l Ret. Bd. v. Justices of the Salem Div. of the Dist. Ct. Dep’t91 Mass. App. Ct. 755, 760 (2017).

Finally, in O’Hare, a state trooper communicated online with, and eventually arranged to meet with, an individual whom he believed to be a fourteen-year-old boy but was actually an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Swallow/O’Hare, 481 Mass. at 244. The FBI arrested O’Hare and he pleaded guilty to a charge of using the Internet to attempt to coerce and entice a child under the age of eighteen years to engage in unlawful sexual activity. Id. The retirement board forfeited O’Hare’s pension rights, finding that his conviction went “directly to the heart” of his responsibilities and obligations as a state police trooper. Id. The District and Superior Courts reversed the retirement board’s decision. Id. at 244-45. Like the posture of Swallow, the Appeals Court reversed, holding that forfeiture was required because O’Hare’s conduct violated the fundamental tenets of his role as a state police trooper, because protecting the vulnerable, including children, is at the heart of a police officer’s role, and this repudiation of his official duties violated the public’s trust and the integrity of the Massachusetts State Police. Id. at 245. See State Bd. of Ret. v. O’Hare92 Mass. App. Ct. 555, 559 (2017).

SJC Changes Course

As perhaps prophetically foretold in the reference to Durkin in the Finneran case, the SJC reversed both Swallow and O’Hare along similar lines. With respect to Swallow, the SJC held the retirement board should not have relied on Durkin for the proposition that forfeiture is mandatory after “a police officer violates the public trust and shirks his or her official duties.” Although Durkin discussed the fundamental nature of the police officer’s position and noted that the officer had violated the public trust by “engag[ing] in the very type of criminal behavior he was required by law to prevent,” forfeiture was ultimately grounded on the factual connections between the officer’s position and the criminal activity. Swallow/O’Hare, 481 Mass. at 251. In O’Hare, the SJC rejected the retirement board’s argument that there is an exception to the proposition that pension forfeiture should not follow “as a consequence of any and all criminal convictions” for law enforcement officials because of their “special position” in our society. In rejecting this position, the SJC stated emphatically, “[t]his is precisely the kind of unfettered breadth that we have consistently avoided.” Id. Accordingly, in both cases the SJC acknowledged the repugnant nature of the criminal offenses, but nevertheless reinstated the pensions. Id. at 254. In O’Hare, the SJC also summarily rejected the argument that there was a “legal link” between the criminal conduct and a violation of the “laws” applicable to State police. Id. at 252-53. The retirement board, relying on State Board of Retirement v. Bulger, 446 Mass. 169 (2006), in which the SJC found that perjury and obstruction of justice convictions violated the Code of Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts and thus were a violation of the laws applicable to the office or position, had posited that the “laws” applicable to State police include the rules and regulations issued by the colonel of the State police pursuant to G. L. c. 22C §§ 3 and 10. O’Hare at 252. It argued that they function as a “code of conduct” and require that State troopers “avoid conduct that brings the State police into disrepute and obey all laws of the United States and the local jurisdiction.” Id. at 252. Unpersuaded, the SJC found that if the legislature wanted to include rules and regulations that do not have the force of law, it would have said so, as it had in the preceding section of the statute. Id. at 252-53. The SJC distinguished the circumstances in Swallow and O’Hare from the holding in Bulger, where a clerk-magistrate committed perjury in violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Clerks of Court — because the Code has “the force of law.” Id. at 253.

Many were surprised by the SJC’s refusal to hold police officers to the higher standard under pension forfeiture laws that had previously been applied to discharge for off-duty conduct, such as in Police Commissioner of Boston v. Civil Service Commission, 39 Mass. App. Ct. 594, 601 (1996) (officer lost his firearm while intoxicated and verbally abused other officers); McIsaac v. Civil Serv. Comm’n38 Mass. App. Ct. 473, 475-76 (1995) (officer negligently handled firearm while intoxicated and verbally abused other officers); Comm’rs of Civil Serv. v. Mun. Ct. of the Brighton Dist., 369 Mass. 166, 170-71 (1975), and Patuto v. Comm’rs of Civ. Ser., 429 U.S. 845 (1976) (upholding discharge of off-duty police officer who accompanied others while they uttered forged money orders). Perhaps less surprising is the SJC’s rejection of the argument that pension forfeiture can be triggered under Section 15 (4) by a violation of a rule or regulation or code of conduct which does not have the force of law. Implicit in its ruling, however, is that had the statute so provided, pension forfeiture would have surely resulted in O’Hare.

Looking Forward

Unless the legislature further amends Section 15 (4), police officers will be treated no differently than other public employees in assessing pension forfeiture for criminal activity. Interestingly, legislation has been filed to further restrict the scope of Section 15 (4). If enacted, it would limit a complete pension forfeiture to cases in which the prosecutor included such a penalty in the sentencing recommendation, and in the absence of such a recommendation, the local retirement board could implement a partial forfeiture based on its discretion and the facts and circumstances of the particular criminal conviction. In my view, the Legislature should follow the Court’s lead in extending the pension forfeiture’s statute’s reach to off-duty law enforcement officers’ conduct as it has in upholding employment termination proceedings. As the Appeals Court noted in Police Commissioner of Boston v. Civil Service Commission, 22 Mass. App. Ct. 364, 371 (1986): “Police officers must comport themselves in accordance with the laws that they are sworn to enforce and behave in a manner that brings honor and respect for rather than public distrust of law enforcement personnel. They are required to do more than refrain from indictable conduct. Police officers are not drafted into public service; rather, they compete for their positions. In accepting employment by the public, they implicitly agree that they will not engage in conduct which calls into question their ability and fitness to perform their official responsibilities.” See also Falmouth v. Civ. Serv. Comm’n, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 796, 801-802 (2004) (“[p]olice officers must … behave in a manner that brings honor and respect for rather than public distrust of law enforcement personnel.  This applies to off-duty as well as on-duty officers.”)  While I recognize the financial impact a pension forfeiture will often have on the pensioner’s family, that should be a consideration before the law enforcement officer commits a crime that puts their family at perilous financial risk.

 

Attorney Sacco founded the Law Offices of Michael Sacco, P.C. on March 20, 2006, having practiced in various Boston law firms in the preceding 12 years. Since entering private practice in 1994, Attorney Sacco’s practice has focused exclusively in the representation of public pension systems in Massachusetts.



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