By Ed Jacques
LEJ Editor

Five dollars a month! That’s all personal security and peace of mind costs. After all, would you let your medical COBRA coverage lapse if you had to leave your current job? At a cost of almost $10,000 a year, most of us would do whatever it took to provide medical coverage for our family. Mortgage companies force their borrowers to have homeowners and car insurance.

Nobody likes the notion of paying a lot for something rarely used. What are the odds of utilizing insurance in the case of a home fire of major automobile accident versus being charged criminally? What we do know is that all three situations can be catastrophic without the proper coverage. We also know that, dollar for dollar, the POAM Criminal Defense Plan is by far the best “insurance” value of any premium you currently pay.

In 1989, POAM became the first police union to offer extended legal coverage for criminal actions arising from on-duty conduct. This coverage scrutinized whether the on-duty conduct was within the course of employment and scope of authority. While the plan was tremendously successful, “the problem was that the scope of authority turned out to be a relative term that was rarely a black and white issue,” says POAM President, Jim Tignanelli. “Although there were many circumstances that shaded some of our early decisions, we still provided the service almost every time. We really disliked the process of deciding on an appropriate case and having to tell a few members they didn’t qualify.”

A solution to the problem was sought and found. POAM Treasurer, Bill Birdseye and General Counsel, Frank Guido, initiated a change to the plan that not only solved the problem, but also provided greater legal coverage for members. The solution was to expand the plan to cover all criminal charges, whether arising from on-duty or off-duty events. Anticipating growth in membership, as well as increased use of plan coverage, POAM added two attorneys to the in-house legal staff. Peter Cravens, a former member who worked for the Dearborn Police Department and Oakland County Prosecutors office along with Martha Champine, who was in private practice, joined the legal team.

When the decision was made to expand coverage under the plan, the question was whether the cost of the plan would have to be increased due to the undoubted likelihood of an increase in plan usage. Initially the cost was scheduled to increase from $5 to $7 per month in March 1996, however, Bill Birdseye decide to keep the cost at $5 per member per month if a sufficient number of participants joined the plan. An overwhelming enrollment ensued keeping the cost at $5 per month. “It has never been our intent to make a single penny on this program,” states Frank Guido. “We want to continue to provide unparalleled legal coverage to members at minimal cost.” Birdseye adds, “I’ve seen lawyers break the back of a union and I’ve seen union’s cut back on service to members because of legal costs. That’s why the executive board decided long ago to control legal expenses by hiring in-house counsel.”

The simplicity in determining coverage is at the heart of the success of the plan. “The Business Agents and local leaders appreciate the fact that they decide when services are necessary-not a committee set up to control legal expenses,” Jim Tignanelli said. “Having our own in-house legal staff took the financial costs out of the equation and when someone is charged criminally, those lawyers are there through the entire process, without interruption and delay to determine whether an individual is covered.”

There have been dozens of cases where the expanded program has saved financial lives and careers of police officers. “It’s become pretty popular to charge police and correction officers criminally, especially in the last 10 to 15 years,” says POAM Business Agent Pat Spidell. “I can’t stand the thought of having to tell a member they aren’t enrolled when they need the coverage most. That’s why I encourage participation to all POAM members, even though many of them work in the more rural areas of northern Michigan.”

POAM President Tignanelli recently had a situation not uncommon during the last 15 years of the plan. Four members of one of his units were charged criminally, but only one was covered by the plan. The covered individual did not have to worry about the expense of legal coverage or even searching for competent legal counsel. That individual only pays $5 per month for all the benefits of the plan, whereas, the other individuals had to find their own legal counsel and are now at risk of spending thousands of dollars out of their own pocket for legal representation.

POAM members can join individually or as part of an entire group, adding the $5 per month charge to their monthly union dues deduction if the entire group signs up. “I want to emphasis the importance of this program to every POAM group, especially our new groups,” added Tignanelli.

“No other labor union offers this kind of coverage to its members,” states Bill Birdseye. “Some organizations have legal plans at more than three times the cost, but all an individual gets is legal assistance at a reduced fee, compared to the incredibly low and fixed cost which we offer.”

The average criminal case could cost a member in excess of $10,000 if not active in the plan. “While cost is an obvious reason to join, there are also significant advantages to having a criminal law attorney represent you that has an extensive background in police labor law,” says Guido. “Every decision, including whether to go to trial or enter a plea arrangement has to be considered in light of the impact on the employment setting, which POAM staff legal counsel are well versed in understanding and implementing,” added Guido.

The expanded plan provides members with legal representation whenever, wherever and however a member is charged, on or off-duty, with a criminal offense arising within the State of Michigan. This program took a giant leap forward eight years ago when it was expanded to cover off-duty matters and no other plan offered in Michigan comes close to it in scope today. There are no hidden fees, deductibles or co-pays. Many officers might say they don’t need this type of coverage. Ask your colleagues that were fortunate enough to be enrolled when their life was turned up side down because of a criminal charge initiated for political or personal reasons. Better yet, ask your spouse and family if your career and financial well-being is worth protecting for $5 per month.

Open enrollment is now available. If you are a local president or treasurer and haven’t renewed your groups $60 annual fee-DO IT NOW or call Diana at the POAM office to let her know your intentions. Do not assume that there is an indefinite grace period! The success of the plan and maintaining the low fee are totally dependent on the strength in membership numbers. If you are an existing group or member call Ed Jacques at POAM for more details on the program and any additional information you or your group may require.