Friday, December 6, 2002
Law Making False Complaints About Police a Crime Upheld by S.C.
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld a state law making it a crime for citizens to knowingly lodge false accusations against police officers.
The unanimous seven-member court said the law, enacted after a flood of complaints against officers following Rodney King’s 1991 taped beating, does not violate free speech guarantees under the Constitution.
Civil rights groups said the ruling could chill people from making legitimate complaints against officers because they may fear police, who investigate themselves, would retaliate and press prosecutors to file criminal charges.
“I have no doubt it would have this effect,” said Alan Schlosser, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which urged the court to strike down the 1995 law.
Ventura County prosecutor Michael Schwartz, who asked the court to uphold the law, said the decision should not hinder people from making legitimate complaints.
“It only prohibits deliberate lies,” Schwartz said. “Before a person can be convicted, the prosecutor would have to be convinced that the person was not only wrong but was lying.”
The court’s decision reinstates the misdemeanor conviction of a Ventura County couple prosecuted in 1998 for falsely accusing an Oxnard police officer of exposing himself to about 50 at-risk teenagers at an awards banquet run by the department’s Police Activities League.
The Oxnard Police Department said it investigated the couple’s allegations and could not corroborate them. The Ventura County district attorney charged Barbara Atkinson and Shaun Stanistreet with filing a false complaint.
They were convicted of violating Penal Code Code Sec. 148.6, which declares the making of false allegations of police misconduct a misdemeanor, and served 30-day jail terms.. They were also convicted of filing a false police report, but a third charge, destroying or concealing evidence, was dismissed after jurors deadlocked.
They have vigorously maintained the allegations against the officer were true and are being covered up.
“Just because they’re the California Supreme Court, they cannot throw out the First Amendment to protect corrupt police officers,” said Atkinson, who said she will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
A divided Ventura Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed, but Div. Six of this district’s Court of Appeal ruled that Sec. 148.6 is unconstitutional and that the false-reporting statute, Sec. 148.5, does not apply to complaints directed at the conduct of officers. Prosecutors sought review only as to the constitutional issue.
The lower court ruled that the law violates the First Amendment because false accusations targeting firefighters, elected officials or most anybody else is not a criminal violation.
But Justice Ming Chin, writing yesterday for a five-member majority, said the Legislature could reasonably single out police officers for special protection.
He noted that while Sec. 148.6 grants unique protection, peace officers are also subject to special scrutiny. Penal Code Sec. 832.5, Chin noted, requires that all complaints of police misconduct be investigated and that they be kept on file for five years.
False complaints can damage an officer’s credibility and cause police resources to be wasted on investigations, Chin said.
The damage that could be done to police officers, the court added, is akin to the potential harm of a terrorist threat against the nation’s president, which is a violation of federal law.
“Just as the government may criminalize only threats of violence against a specific victim, the president, so too may the Legislature criminalize only knowingly false accusations against a class of victims — peace officers,” Chin wrote.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, joined by Justice Carlos Moreno, concurred separately.
Werdegar said the majority had too readily dismissed the concern that the statute could be used to suppress legitimate complaints, since citizens may be reluctant to risk the prosecution that might ensue if their truthful allegations are disbelieved.
“Realistically, some complainants are likely to choose not to go forwardóeven when they have legitimate complaints,” Werdegar wrote. But she concurred in the result, agreeing with Chin that the Legislature may proscribe speech that is knowingly false, even if it constitutes “content discrimination.”
The ruling sets up a possible jurisdictional conflict. U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin ruled last year that Sec. 148.6 is unconstitutional. Timlin allowed a man who was detained for violation of Sec. 148.6 to maintain a civil rights suit against San Bernardino officials.
In addition, both Timlin and the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. Two, ruled last year that the law’s civil counterpart, Civil Code Sec. 47.5, which allows peace officers to sue over false complaints, is unconstitutional. Chin referred to those rulings in passing yesterday, saying the constitutionality of Sec. 47.5 was not before the high court.
The court’s decision, meanwhile, may revive charges in a related Solano County case.
Last year, a judge dismissed charges against two women who complained about a California Highway Patrol officer. The women were driving to Reno, Nev., and were stopped by an officer on suspicion of speeding.
They complained the officer was discourteous. After reviewing a tape recording of the stop, the CHP said the officer had acted professionally and deemed the complaint false.
The case decided yesterday is People v. Stanistreet, 02 S.O.S. 5922.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company