A former King County Sheriff's Office rookie is suing the department for wrongful termination, claiming that he was fired for refusing to join in illegal police practices with the officers who were supposed to be training him. Joseph Pellegrini, described as a King County native in his early 30s, filed a civil lawsuit in King County Superior Court last month against the department. Pellegrini's claims were detailed by his attorney, Peter Connick.

Pellegrini was a recruit deputy in early 2000, a rookie who had only been employed by the sheriff's office for a year. He was assigned to SeaTac and was under the supervision of field training officers. As an officer in training, he saw officers engage in questionable procedures. "Mr. Pellegrini witnessed 'knock and talks' or 'fishing expeditions' where suspected 'dopers' were commanded to open the door of their motel room," the lawsuit alleges. "The motel room was then searched without any consent.... Mr. Pellegrini heard fellow officers make statements like 'I make the laws out here' and other unsettling remarks."

Furthermore, these officers wanted Pellegrini to join in their unethical behavior. He was encouraged to make "profile and pretext traffic stops," with instructions to "follow cars because of the driver's personal appearance and to make traffic stops without probable cause." (Despite the recent controversies surrounding racial profiling, Connick says that sheriff's deputies who worked with Pellegrini weren't intent on targeting blacks. "It's class-based," Connick says. "Anybody who's ragged-looking, or has long hair, or who looks poor, or if they have an old car--those are the people who were singled out.")

Although Pellegrini was disquieted by these police tactics, he didn't want to become a whistleblower, Connick says. He just wanted to be transferred out of SeaTac and placed under different supervisors. But he could not get a transfer until he gave his reasons in writing. On May 2, 2000, Pellegrini formally reported his allegations of the illegal motel-room searches and the questionable traffic stops.

"He's ordered to write it all up," Connick says. "He does. And he starts getting reprisals. And exactly what he fears happens--the people he complained about are told." Before he had reported concerns, Connick claims, Pellegrini was getting spotless evaluations. Afterward, Pellegrini's supervisors started to find mistakes in his work. "Mr. Pellegrini scored in the top three percent of the [training] academy," Connick claims. "He's what you want a police officer to be." The Stranger has requested copies of Pellegrini's job-performance records to verify Connick's version of events.

Then, on June 13, 2000, a "Special Board" was convened, according to Pellegrini's lawsuit. "Two of the officers on this board were officers he criticized," Connick says. The board concluded that Pellegrini's work was unsatisfactory, and recommended that the recruit deputy be fired. Pellegrini resigned rather than be officially terminated, Connick says.

According to the lawsuit, seeing Pellegrini resign wasn't enough for the sheriff's office. "They terminated him even after he resigned--just to make sure he wouldn't work in law enforcement again," Connick claims. "And they were successful. He can't be a patrolman or a police officer because of this."

The sheriff's office denies Pellegrini's allegations. "We don't train our officers to do pretextual stops and certainly not profiling stops," says Sergeant John Urquhart, department spokesman. "We absolutely don't expect our officers to do illegal searches. That's a gross misdemeanor."

Pellegrini is demanding $2 million in damages for the stress and mental anguish he suffered. The civil trial is not scheduled until August 2002, assuming the case isn't dismissed or settled out of court before then.