I recently blogged about a City of Thousand Oaks case in which a hearing officer’s decision to impose a $2500 fine on a 23 year old man for an alleged violation of a “Social Host” ordinance (for allowing underage drinking in his home), was overturned. The Superior Court judge reviewing the case ruled that the man’s Due Process rights had been violated by the way the hearing officer was selected, as well as a “lack of procedural due process during the hearing”.
The Thousand Oaks situation reminded me of a case that went to the California Supreme Court several years ago. In Haas v County of San Bernardino, 27 Cal.4th 1017, 119 Cal.Rptr.2d 341 (2002), a well known attorney who specializes in representing the adult entertainment industry was able to successfully argue that a County’s practice of selecting and paying hearing officers on an ad hoc basis violated due process. His client operated a massage parlor whose license was being revoked because a deputy sheriff had reported that one of his massage technicians had exposed her breasts and proposed a sexual act.
The Haas case eventually revolved not around the alleged wrongdoing but around the issue of the hearing officer that the County had hired to hear the appeal of the license revocation. The Supreme Court set forth the question and their response as follows: “The question presented is whether a temporary administrative hearing officer has a pecuniary interest requiring disqualification when the government unilaterally selects and pays the officer on an ad hoc basis and the officer’s income from future adjudicative work depends entirely on the government’s good will. We conclude the answer is yes.”
My reaction to Haas has always been a reluctant admiration of how an attorney, well versed in Constitutional law, can invoke the legal principle like Due Process to advance his client’s position, especially in a situation where the facts were likely clearly against his client on the merits. The lesson is to be vigilantly aware of the importance of due process principles and the pivotal role they can play in the ultimate result of a dispute. A lot of folks may argue or think of this as just “procedure” or a “technicality”, but these can easily form the basis upon which the ultimate results can turn…
David H. Hirsch