Morrisey rules Morgantown police oversight effort illegal

CHARLESTON, W.Va – West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has notified Morgantown leaders that it remains the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office that the city’s proposed police reform ordinance would violate state law.

The letter, sent Thursday, expresses grave concern that any attempt by Morgantown City Council to create a Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board would still run afoul of the Legislature’s intent for the police civil service commissions to serve as a “complete and exclusive system” for the investigation and adjudication of police misconduct charges.

Even with the most problematic provisions eliminated, the Attorney General believes judicial precedent may require a court to strike down the ordinance in its entirety.

“It remains the opinion of the Office of the Attorney General that the Morgantown City Council does not have the legal authority to enact any municipal ordinance purporting to conduct investigations or hearings in connection with complaints relating to members of the Morgantown Police Department,” Attorney General Morrisey writes. “Any such ordinance would directly conflict with the express provisions of W.Va. Code … I hope this opinion persuades the Council to take no action in this matter that would violate West Virginia law.”

The Attorney General believes city leaders have taken the issue very serious by soliciting public comment and and the legal opinion of the AG. However, the opinion remains unchanged from concerns he expressed in September 2020.

Morrisey’s letter says the proposed police review board would violate sections of state law that require such complaints and any other matters that may result in punitive action against a police officer to be addressed through the existing Police Civil Service Commission.

The Attorney General argues state law does not provide cities the ability to grant such authority to a separate entity, even to hold hearings or issue recommended actions.

Also in the letter, examples cited by Morgantown officials of similar boards in other states exist because laws in those states lack unique language that is present in West Virginia law, where civil service commissions are set forth as the “complete and exclusive system” for the investigation and adjudication of alleged police misconduct.