LOS ANGELES - A California Court of Appeal today held that a law criminalizing "false" complaints against police officers violates the First Amendment. This is the first court of appeal decision to address the constitutionality of Penal Code ﾌ_148.6, which the ACLU has been fighting because of its chilling effect on legitimate citizen complaints of police misconduct
"This is a great victory for free speech," said Dan Tokaji, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California who submitted an amicus brief and argued the case. "Today's decision clarifies that Californians have right NOT to remain silent. This ruling clears the way for victims and witnesses of police abuse to inform authorities, without fear of being criminally prosecuted."
Penal Code ﾌ_148.6 makes it a crime to file a knowingly false complaint of police misconduct. Though ostensibly targeted only at false complaints, today's decision in People v. Stanistreet recognizes that the law has a tendency to chill truthful complaints of police misconduct - especially since the very police departments accused of misconduct will be determining the truth or falsity of such complaints.
Today's decision holds that Penal Code ﾌ_148.6 discriminates based on content, by targeting citizen complaints about the police for unfavorable treatment. By selectively targeting citizen complaints against police officers -- and not firefighters, paramedics, teachers, elected officials or anyone else ? the law violates the First Amendment.
The ACLU has been fighting against laws that target citizen complaints against police officers since 1997. So far, three federal district courts have held unconstitutional either Penal Code ﾌ_148.6 or its companion civil statute, Civil Code ﾌ_47.5 which allows civil defamation actions against those who complain about police misconduct.
"We are very pleased with today's decision," stated Daniel Tokaji. "This law was a crude attempt to turn back the clock on progress toward improving communication between the police and the community. It is very important that we continue the fight to preserve the open channel of communications between citizens and the police departments that serve them, by making sure that people who file citizen complaints are not subject to retaliatory civil or criminal actions."