What every officer should know about the Johnny Depp defamation lawsuit

The trial is a good reminder of the three things police forget about investigations


Johnny Depp’s United States defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard started on April 16. The trial is supposed to last six weeks and, just like a movie, is already full of twists, turns, suspense and drama.

In 2012, Depp and Heard started dating. In 2014 they were engaged, and in 2015 were married. But by 2016, Heard filed for divorce stating irreconcilable differences. Soon after, Heard filed an order of protection saying Depp emotionally, verbally and physically abused her. Heard wrote an op-ed for “The Washington Post” speaking out against violence against women and the price they pay for speaking up against men. Depp claims these allegations led to Depp being dropped by Disney from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and axed from Warner Brothers’ “Fantastic Beasts” franchise.

So, what does this case have to do with police work? A lot more than you think.

Actor Johnny Depp testifies during the trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a
Actor Johnny Depp testifies during the trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a "public figure representing domestic abuse." (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)

Four sides to an investigation

We have always heard that there are always two sides to an investigation. One side comes from the victim, and the other side comes from the suspect. What we often forget is that there are two more sides to every police investigation: the criminal side and the civil side.

Every crime has a criminal side and a civil side. For example, in a murder case, the criminal side deals with the act of breaking the state statute. Criminal litigation is brought by the state. The civil side deals with the actual act of causing someone’s death (wrongful death) and civil litigation is brought by private parties.

But what happens if there is not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the perpetrator? Or what happens if the case goes to trial but gets dismissed? The victim’s family has the right to sue civilly in court for any damages caused by the wrongful death. The state takes no action in this process.

The highest-profile civil wrongful death case would be the OJ Simpson murder trial. He was found not guilty of murder, but the victims’ families sued Mr. Simpson civilly for wrongful death and the jury awarded them sixty million dollars.

In 2016, LAPD responded to Depp and Heard’s penthouse to investigate a potential domestic violence situation. The officers responded and spoke with Ms. Heard. During their investigation, they found “no evidence of a crime” and left. Their criminal investigation turned non-criminal. But years later, that call is being used in civil proceedings.

No matter the crime, there can be a civil side to your investigation.

Documenting non-criminal acts or allegations of a crime

All agencies have policies about when to write a report and when not to write a report. I have yet to come across an agency that requires an officer to write a report for every call. That would be a colossal waste of time.

In 2016, the LAPD responded to Depp and Heard’s penthouse only to find out that no crime occurred. They told the press that officers did not write a report because they did not see any damage to property and did not see any injuries on Heard. It is common practice in law enforcement to not write a police report when an officer does not see any damage or injuries, or when no allegations of injuries were made.

What is important to note is that the attorneys on both sides emphasized police documentation of non-criminal acts. Just because an officer does not write a police report, doesn’t mean the officer can simply just walk away. The officer should always include at least a few notes just in case that information is needed later.

Here are three ways agencies can document non-criminal matters:

  1. Use computer-aided dispatch (CAD) comments: Every agency has a way of clearing calls by attaching the officer’s written comments to CAD details. These comments are connected to the incident number, which can be retrieved later.
  2. Field Interview Report: If you want to document a little more than just CAD comments, your agency will likely have a system where you can document details using a “mini-report,” often called and field interview report. These are short 1-2 paragraph statements of what the officer did or saw and who the officer spoke with.
  3. Traditional police report: Some officers think they cannot write a police report if their criminal investigation turns non-criminal. This is not the case. Non-criminal reports are often called informational (info) reports. Info reports can turn into criminal reports later if detectives find all the elements of a crime. They can also be used to support criminal investigations, city engineers, planning departments and training units. More importantly, info reports are used to document what the officers did and why they were there in the first place.

CAD comments, field interview reports and traditional info police reports are excellent ways of documenting what happened and what the officer did during an investigation. All three can also be requested through public information (FOIL) requests or subpoenas, and all three can be used on both the criminal and the civil sides of litigation.


Below: LAPD Officer William Gatlin testified during the Johnny Depp defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard that he responded to the couple's home over a fight in May 2016. Gatlin wore a body camera while responding to the scene. This was the second time police were called to the home that day.


You can be subpoenaed to testify for non-criminal trials

Officers are surprised when they are subpoenaed or deposed for a “non-police” investigation. Remember, you are just like any other witness or citizen. You just happened to be doing your job as a police officer when the incident occurred.

Civil cases, unlike criminal cases, can take a very long time to complete. It is common for civil cases to last more than five years, so adequate documentation – whatever that looks like for you – is critical in these cases.

The Johnny Depp defamation case is a good example of how civil investigations work. The incident occurred in May of 2016, but the officer’s depositions weren’t taken until April 2021. Adequate notes will help you recall details in these cases.

Takeaways

The Johnny Depp defamation suit is a perfect example of how the civil justice system intersects with the criminal justice system. Even though the officers did not write a report on this incident, the CAD comments, on-body video and officers’ testimony were used years later in the civil legal proceedings.

Keep in mind that what you do and how you document the facts may affect those around you. What seems unimportant to you may be very important for someone else. Even if you do not write a formal report, work on improving how you document non-criminal investigations. Start by including a few more comments, a few more details and a few more sentences. These notes go a long way for those involved on the civil side of investigations.

If ever you have any questions on if you should write a report, follow your trainer’s advice, “When in doubt, write it out.”

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