By Steve Pomper
Well, what do you know? It seems a legal ruling (tentative at the moment) in, of all places California, has come down on the side of LAPD officers. L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert Broadbelt ruled in favor of the LAPD officer’s union.
The police union had sued the city and former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck back in September 2017, attempting to reduce the number of false complaints filed against their officers. The judge ruled that before accepting a citizen complaint against an officer, the LAPD must warn people that filing a false complaint is a crime.
L.A.’s city leaders, surprising no one, hold the more traditional anti-cop position: that it is unconstitutional for the police to advise people that filing a false report against a police officer is a crime. They argue it violates the First Amendment.
NBC 4 Los Angeles reported, “A judge has tentatively ruled that the Los Angeles Police Department must warn people that deliberately filing false complaints against officers is a misdemeanor under the law, a practice the city maintained was unconstitutional.”
I can see anti-police politicians not agreeing with a law they don’t like; they do it all the time. But unconstitutional? All the judge has done is add a caution to a form similar to warnings nearly every person has had to sign at some point in their lives. Often this type of warning appears on government documents, employment application forms, or when purchasing a home.
The ruling instructs the LAPD not to accept a complaint of officer misconduct “unless the complainant reads and signs the advisory warning the person that filing false complaints is illegal.” We’ve heard a lot in the news lately about what happens if a person makes false statements to the FBI. Shouldn’t people know this? Isn’t it a courtesy to warn people?
Shouldn’t people be upset if the cops didn’t warn people of this possibility? Everyone knows the old saying, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” So, if cops wanted to be unfair, wouldn’t they resist warning potential violators? Once again, the anti-cop forces have inverted their argument.
The cops just want to stop the plethora of bogus complaints against them. NBC 4 reported LAPD Officer Steve Gordon told Judge Broadbelt gang members were filing false complaints as a routine tactic to “target officers and remove them from the gang members’ areas.”
But many of L.A.’s politicians no longer take the side of the cops over the criminals? To do so would shake the very foundation of what California’s major cities have become—crime oases. Some cop critics complain such a move might discourage people from filing valid reports about officer misconduct. This argument is similar to the one these same folks make about illegal immigrants.
I’d go even a step further if I were the judge (probably a good thing I’m not—for the criminals). Rather than warn potential false reporters, I’d mandate prosecution if evidence pointed to probable cause they filed a false report against an officer. During my entire career, I don’t remember one person being prosecuted for filing a false report against an officer. This was a big issue with our union as well.
Unfortunately, the city’s constitutional argument has a toe hold. It involves what they see as a conflict between this new state law and federal law. The city seems to be arguing that people have a First Amendment right to file a false complaint against a police officer. At least, that’s what it sounds like they’re saying.
NBC 4’s story doesn’t specifically mention it, but I assume the case the city is relying on is the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Alvarez. This concerned the “Stolen Valor Act,” making it illegal to make claims of possessing false military honors. The Court struck down the act, essentially ruling it was too broad. The law was amended in 2013, which added that the false military claim is illegal only if a person does it for a specific benefit of tangible value.
However, Alvarez’ lying about having received the Medal of Honor, as despicable as that was, is in a different category than filing a false complaint about a police officer. Alvarez’ actions, as contemptible as they were, did not put another person at risk of discipline, termination, or even prison.
It seems to me Judge Broadbelt’s ruling is more in line with the First Amendment exceptions for perjury. The Court’s case syllabus noted, “As for perjury statutes, perjured statements lack First Amendment protection not simply because they are false, but because perjury undermines the function and province of the law and threatens the integrity of judgments.”
And while the Court also considered people’s fear of filing complaints due to a “chilling effect.” Justice Breyer noted, “Moreover, the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can inhibit the speaker from making true statements, thereby ‘chilling’ a kind of speech that lies at the the First Amendment’s heart.” Forgive me. I respect the Court, but really?
In defense of preventing “chilling” speech here, Justice Alito “held that liability for the defamation of a public official or figure requires proof of that defamatory statements were made with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity.” In other words, even people who file false reports against cops have legal protections.
With the Court’s competing concurrences (in striking down the law), I understand how the city established the basis for its constitutional argument. More liberal members of the Court sort of plopped that nugget in the city’s lap. Still, I think upon further review, should this case make it to the Court, it would rule more in line with the perjury similarities with intentionally filing false complaints against officers over the possible “chilling” speech aspects.
Am I understanding the city’s position correctly? Doesn’t their interpretation of the Court’s ruling give criminals a First Amendment right to file false complaints against law enforcement officers? How could knowingly making a false allegation against a police officer be constitutionally protected speech?
Without a law prohibiting filing false complaints against a law enforcement officers, what alternative would cops have to defend themselves against people who falsely accuse them, which can so negatively affect their professional and personal lives?
Let’s hope Judge Broadbelt’s ruling stands. A hearing on entry of judgement has been set for January 30th, 2020.