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Nueces County Sheriff's Office ordered to turn over internal affairs files

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Posted at 5:21 PM, May 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-26 19:32:14-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A ruling by a district court judge Friday has a top Coastal Bend law enforcement official questioning the future of internal investigations into his officers.

"I’m disappointed. I think it was the wrong ruling, but like I said, I respect the judge's opinion and we will comply," Nueces County Sheriff J.C. Hooper said.

Hooper said 105th District Court Judge Jack Pulcher ordered his office to turn over all internal investigatory files related to the execution of an arrest warrant in January that resulted in a chase and a deputy discharging his weapon.

The Nueces County District Attorney's Office had previously requested those files, and was told the sheriff's office would not comply, before subpoenaing them.

Earlier this month, the DA's office decided not to pursue charges against this man, but is investigating deputies involved in the arrest.

The county fought that subpoena based on a Supreme Court ruling from 1967 that prohibits any public employee from being compelled to incriminate themselves.

That ruling set up what is known as federal Garity protections, in which public employees are notified that they must comply with administrative investigations, refusal can result in termination, and that statements given are "solely and exclusively for internal administrative purposes."

"It’s a matter of threatening to terminate somebody if they don’t comply with the administrative (investigation) and there aren’t too many careers, where that happens where your employer can order you, can compel you, to give a statement. And so in law enforcement, if and when an officer's actions could also be criminal in nature, and be prosecuted, there has to be a wall between the administrative investigation and the criminal investigation," Hooper said.

Hooper said that the ruling impacts all internal investigations going forward.

"This kind of changes the game," Hooper said. "We promised the officer that in complying with our order to give an interview that whatever we discover in that interview won’t be walked over to the detectives. That’s the way we keep our agencies ethical and moral. We have to have the ability to do internal affairs investigations and to do corrective discipline and punishment to change behavior to salvage an employee. We have to have that tool without the officer refusing to comply because then now we have to terminate somebody."

He also said that while these protections do not prevent criminal investigations into actions by officers, statements given under threat of termination should not be used in criminal cases.

Scott Leeton, President of the Corpus Christi Police Officer's Association, told KRIS 6 News that in addition to Garity protection, municipal officers such as those with CCPD, have an additional protection against self-incrimination under state law.

"We have civil service, and sheriffs' department has civil service, but they're different. Under the civil service for police, the records cannot be released," Leeton said.

He said that the only instance in which files can be released, under the Public Information Act, is when an officer has been disciplined and files are restricted to the information surrounding the incident.

"In theory, you could say I'm not going to give you a statement, but then that puts you in a position to be terminated," Leeton said.

Pulcher's ruling includes a protective order, which limits the sharing and viewing of the files to certain individuals with the DA's office and the grand jury.

The sheriff's office has two weeks to conclude its investigation, gather documents and comply with the ruling. Hooper said that while the investigation is not complete, he believes his deputies violated policy and procedure.