St. Tammany deputy fired for living with a felon loses legal challenge to policy
BY SARA PAGONES | STAFF WRITER AUG 5, 2019 – 10:00 AM
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office captain who said his constitutional rights were violated when he was fired for not ending a relationship with his girlfriend, a convicted felon.
Calvin Lewis was fired in 2016 for violating a department policy that forbids deputies from having a personal relationship or association with a known felon or anyone incarcerated or in a work-release program.
But Lewis, a nine-year veteran, argued that the policy is illegal, unconstitutional and selectively enforced.
His suit claimed that the policy infringed on his right to enter into a relationship that is protected by a constitutional right of free association. At the time he was fired, he had lived with his girlfriend, Laura Kozma, for 10 years and was involved in raising her children.
She pleaded guilty to bank fraud in Arkansas in 2005, according to court records. More recent charges filed against her in St. Tammany Parish for theft and money laundering were quashed earlier this year because of authorities’ failure to try the case in a timely manner.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Barry Ashe acknowledged that the couple’s relationship “may fall on the continuum of protected relationships.” But the Sheriff’s Office policy does not prohibit the relationship itself and affects it “only incidentally by requiring STPSO employees to relinquish their jobs if they choose to violate the policy,” the ruling said.
Ashe said Lewis had to show there is no rational connection between the rule and the promotion of the safety of persons and property.
“Lewis contends that the STPSO has not identified a legitimate objective for its anti-fraternization policy,” the ruling said. “However, the STPSO has a legitimate interest in regulating the behavior of its employees, especially its most senior officers like Lewis, to minimize the risk for potential conflicts of interest posed by any association with persons of notoriety and to protect the credibility and integrity of the office.”
Lewis also argued that the rule was selectively enforced. He alleged that other employees are engaged in relationships that also violate the policy but that it was used against him because he is African-American.
But the judge ruled that he did not provide enough information about the other employees, their race or their alleged relationships.
Smith called the ruling a vindication.
“I am pleased that once again the federal court has dismissed what I believe was another frivolous lawsuit against our agency,” Smith said in a statement. “I have remained confident that I made the correct decision to terminate Mr. Lewis who knowingly violated the STPSO’s policies and procedures.”
Larry Demmons, an attorney for Lewis, said his client will appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. “We are confident that we will prevail on appeal,” Demmons said.
He described Lewis as a 15-year veteran with an exemplary record who now works for the Mandeville Police Department. He said the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office policy goes much further than those of Orleans and Jefferson parishes and the Slidell and Mandeville police departments.
Other Sheriff’s Office employees have relationships with people who have criminal records, Demmons said.
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