L-R Michael and Brooke Puglise (John Disney/Daily Report)
A former University of Georgia police officer who said he was fired after following a new law barring criminal charges against anyone voluntarily seeking medical help for an alcohol or drug overdose has filed a whistleblower suit against his old department, UGA’s police chief and his former supervising officers.
According to a suit filed this week in Fulton County Superior Court, Jay Park was accused of insubordination and terminated three days after he told his superiors that he could not arrest an “obviously unwell youth” apparently suffering from alcohol poisoning last year. Park cited Georgia’s 2014 “Medical Amnesty Law,” which states that “any person who, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for someone who is experiencing an alcohol-related overdose shall not be arrested, charged or prosecuted” for a violation of the law.
At the scene, Park contacted his supervising sergeant and told him he didn’t think he could arrest the young man under the law. Sgt. Gene Rankin told Park to speak with his departmental captain, Wes Huff, but the next day, before that meeting was held, Park was sent to another emergency situation. This one concerned two other individuals who were “in desperate need of urgent medical assistance due to a possible alcohol overdose,” according to the complaint.
Park called Huff to apprise him of the situation and to say he could not arrest either of the people because of the law when Rankin arrived and ordered Park to leave the scene. Park later met with Huff, who told Park that he was “misinterpreting” the amnesty law, the suit said.
Huff ordered Park to obtain search and arrest warrants for one of the individuals requiring medical attention in “direct contravention” of the law, the suit claimed.
Prior to meeting with Huff, the complaint said, Park had contacted several “individuals well versed in the amnesty law,” including Athens-Clarke County magistrate Toni Pomerene, state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, and state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, to discuss “the content of the law.”
Pomerene apparently contacted UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson, the suit said. On Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, when Park reported for work, Williamson terminated him for insubordination, with “no warnings, no instruction, no disciplining leading to his termination.” Williamson, it said, told Park he would “make sure [Park] could never again be employed as a law enforcement officer anywhere.”
Williamson also recorded his termination of Park, the suit said, and gave it to local news outlets. Termination letters from Williamson and Huff to Park cited “potential embarrassment that the department would suffer as a result of Officer Park’s suggestion that the department was violating the law,” the complaint said.
Park’s attorney, Michael Puglise, said the video has been available on YouTube and shows Williams “bullying and insulting” Park during the process of firing him.
Puglise said that Park, who had been with the department since 2010, is unable to work because, as a result of his termination, his certification has been suspended by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council pending a review of his case.
“I expect Officer Park to be 110 percent exonerated,” said Puglise.
On Sept. 22, Puglise and his daughter, Brooke Puglise, of Snellville’s Puglise Law Firm, sued on Park’s behalf the state Board of Regents, the UGA Police Department, Williamson, Huff and Rankin. The complaint includes claims for wrongful termination and retaliation in violation of Georgia’s whistleblower law, as well as counts for defamation, slander, obstruction of an officer, violation of oath of office and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A spokesman for Attorney General Sam Olens said his office has received the suit and will provide representation, but otherwise had no comment. Officials with UGA and the university’s police department declined to comment.
Park’s case has become something of a cause célèbre among UGA students, and a petition demanding his reinstatement on the Change.org website has garnered nearly 5,000 signatures.
Puglise said the individuals Park refused to arrest were arrested by other officers, and he said he hopes that they and others who were arrested before the department began observing the law will come forward “so we can find out how many illegal acts are out there.”