California high court weighs law barring false complaints against cops
By The Associated Press
FRESNO, Calif. The California Supreme Court yesterday began reviewing a state law that makes it a crime to knowingly make false accusations against police officers.
The justices, hearing oral arguments in Fresno for the first time, grappled with a state appeals court ruling declaring that the 1995 law violates the First Amendment right of free speech.
At issue is a ruling from the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura that overturned the 1998 misdemeanor convictions of Oxnard couple Shaun Stanistreet and Barbara Atkinson. The pair accused an Oxnard police officer of exposing himself to about 50 at-risk teenagers at an awards banquet run by the department's Activities League.
Some justices suggested they may uphold the law and reinstate the convictions.
"It would appear to me in a situation such as this, there is no constitutional infirmity," Justice Joyce Kennard said, echoing similar sentiments from other panelists.
The Oxnard Police Department said it investigated the couple's allegations and could not corroborate them. The Ventura County district attorney charged the two for allegedly filing a false complaint.
The two were convicted in 1998 of a law that carries a one-year term. They served 30 days in jail and appealed, maintaining the allegations were true and being covered up.
The justices hearing People v. Stanistreet accepted as true that the couple made up the story and focused its argument on whether filing a false police report should subject one to criminal prosecution.
Ventura County prosecutor Michael Schwartz told the justices that the law, enacted in response to a slew of complaints against officers following the 1991 Rodney King beating, was designed to protect police officers' reputations.
"We do want to protect peace officers from false complaints," Schwartz said.
Justice Marvin Baxter agreed. "That career is entitled to protection," he said.
The appeals court, in overturning the convictions, acknowledged that law enforcement officers "confront the worst that society has to offer" and "risk their lives to provide citizens a safer and better place to live." But the panel concluded that was not justification for limiting free expression.
The appeals panel noted the state law made it a crime to make untrue complaints about peace officers, but it was not criminally unlawful to make such allegations against firefighters, elected officials or anybody else.
The American Civil Liberties Union said criminalizing speech against police officers but not other public officials was unconstitutional because it singled out speech directed at police officers. The ACLU also argued that the law may keep people from making legitimate complaints out of fear they, too, may be prosecuted.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar suggested that police complaint forms and their "bold" letters stating people could be prosecuted might "be intimidating."
Daniel Tokaji, the ACLU's attorney, said the law needs to be eliminated to "retain an open channel of communication" between the public and law enforcement.
In court briefs, the National Association for Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement urged the court to vacate the Oxnard couple's conviction. But a group representing 45,000 California peace officers said in court briefs that officers' reputation outweighs claims of free speech.
"Defamation receives no First Amendment protection," Rockne Lucia Jr. wrote the court on behalf of the Peace Officers Research Association.
In a related case last year, a Solano County judge dismissed charges against two women who complained about a California Highway Patrol officer. The women were driving to Reno, Nev., and stopped by an officer for speeding.
Kimberly Joan Reed and Rita Lena Jamerson later complained the officer was discourteous. After reviewing a tape recording of the stop, the CHP said the officer had acted professionally and it deemed the complaint false. Criminal charges were brought, but a judge ruled them unconstitutional.
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