A Lansdale police officer will return to duty following a 30-day suspension for failing to
appear at a preliminary hearing, according to a ruling upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
According to the opinion authored by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the court's ruling supports the findings made by the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, which found that the Lansdale Borough Civil Service Commission did not have substantial evidence to claim that George Johnson made false statements to a district judge.
"The evidence presented by the Borough proved, at worst, that Johnson made an
incomplete statement," Leavitt wrote.
Johnson, a borough police officer since 1997, did not appear at a preliminary hearing on May 18, 2010, before the district justice in a DUI case in which Johnson had been the arresting officer.
Because Johnson was not scheduled to work the day of the hearing, the police department could not give the prosecutor information that might have allowed the district justice to reschedule the preliminary hearing. In the absence of evidence, the district justice dismissed the DUI charges against the defendant.
A few days later, Johnson met with Lansdale Police Chief Robert McDyre to discuss his absence from the hearing. No notes were taken during the meeting, but according to McDyre, Johnson told the chief that he had forgotten the hearing on a day he was off from work. Johnson stated that he had seen the district justice and told him that he had been sick on the day of the hearing and, in addition, he had begun drafting a letter to the district attorney in an effort to get the charges reinstated.
In the letter, quoted in Leavitt's opinion, Johnson also claims he missed the hearing because of illness. Based on Johnson's earlier statement to the chief that he had forgotten about the hearing, McDyre placed him on administrative leave for being truthful to the district justice and prosecuting attorney.
During a Loudermill hearing, Johnson explained that on May 17, 2010, he called in sick because of a migraine sinus headache, and had off the next day. Johnson said he left home that morning to perform an errand and began to feel ill. He returned home, took medicine and went to bed for the rest of the day. McDyre accused Johnson of lying about his reasons for missing the preliminary hearing and recommended his termination.
On June 18, 2010, the Lansdale Borough Council cited four reasons to support the firing of Johnson, including his failure to appear at the hearing, being untruthful to McDyre during the May 26 meeting, lying to a district judge and preparing a false document with his letter to the district attorney.
During an appeal hearing before the Lansdale Borough Civil Service Commission, Johnson provided even more details on the days leading up to missing the May 18 hearing. According to his testimony, on May 13, 2010, his seven-year-old son was attacked by his neighbor’s pit bull and suffered significant injuries to his right thigh and left arm. He worked his next two shifts, then called out on May 17 from his migraines.
Johnson said he went to the municipal building the next day to vote and follow-up on an incident report filed over the dog bite, then went home feeling sick. Johnson told the commission that he recalled telling McDyre that he missed the preliminary hearing for two reasons, his illness combined with his apprehension over his son’s injury.
Because there were no notes taken during Johnson's meeting with McDyre, there was no way for the commission to hold one party's version of events more favorable than the other. For those reasons, the commission reversed the borough's second reason to terminate Johnson, but upheld the other three.
The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas and the Commonwealth Court both agree that since the details of the meeting with the police chief cannot be established as fact, it cannot be used to accuse Johnson of lying to a district judge or the district attorney.
"Because the commission found that the borough did not prove that any of Johnson’s stated reasons for missing the hearing were untruthful, it was inconsistent for the commission then to conclude that Johnson’s statement that he was sick was a false statement," the opinion says.
The trial court dismissed charges three and four as not proven and modified
Johnson’s discipline to a 30-day suspension.