I previously blogged about public entities and how they are required to observe a number of rules that the private sector doesn’t need to worry about because of Constitutional principles that apply to the actions of governmental entities. This included "due process" considerations that come into play during the many "quasi-judicial" proceedings that public agencies conduct. When due process is required, participants in the hearing are entitled to certain procedural rights that are necessary in order to ensure a fair hearing. Included among these procedural rights is generally the right to a hearing in front of an impartial decision-maker.
The need to be careful and make sure due process rights are kept in mind was driven home recently by a trial court decision involving the City of Thousand Oaks. As reported on December 31, 2009 in the Ventura County Star newspaper, the case involved a 23 year old man who was fined under a city Social Host Ordinance that makes adults liable for underage drinking parties at their homes.
http://www.vcstar.com/news/2009/dec/31/man-wins-case-against-to-city-hall/ He was cited after minors, including his 17 year old sister, were allegedly caught with beer inside his rented condo during a noisy party.
The City conducted an administrative hearing in which the man was found guilty and fined $2,500.. He then filed an appeal as permitted by State law to the Superior Court arguing that the hearing officer was unqualified. The City contracts with an independent business to conduct its hearings.
Ordering that a new hearing be conducted, the Judge ruled that "the process of selection of the hearing officer, and the lack of procedural due process during the hearing, require that the decision be overturned."
While there is surely more to the story than just what has been reported in the press, the lesson is that a failure to follow the necessary procedural issues can undermine an entity’s ability to enforce its laws and regulations and cause a reversal of an otherwise appropriate and valid result.
Stay tuned for my next blog entry, where I will discuss how the Thousand Oaks situation parallels a case involving hearing officers that was decided by the California Supreme Court a number of years ago…
David H. Hirsch