LOS ANGELES — Laws making it a crime to bring false accusations against a peace officer but not anyone else are unconstitutional because they represent a selective prohibition that inhibits free expression, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal’s ruling speaks directly to California Penal Code sections 148.5, filing a false report of a criminal offense, and 148.6a1, knowingly filing a false charge of police misconduct.
Shaun Stanistreet and Barbara Joyce Atkinson were convicted in 1998 of the two misdemeanor counts after they accused an Oxnard police officer of lewd conduct at a gathering of at-risk youth attending a Police Activities League meeting. The accusation was proved false.
In overturning the convictions on a 3-0 vote, an appeals court panel ruled that Ventura County prosecutors did not establish “that officers lack effective means to rebut groundless complaints.”
“Internal oversight procedures may quickly screen out spurious complaints such as those filed by Stanistreet and Atkinson,” the justices added.
Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Michael Schwartz said prosecutors plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The appellate court 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 concluded that isn’t a justification for limiting the public’s Constitutional right to free expression.
“The importance of providing to citizens free and open access to governmental agencies for the reporting of suspected illegal activity outweighs the occasional harm that might befall a defamed individual,” the justices said.
A similar case at the Solano Superior Court in Fairfield was dismissed two weeks ago. Two women driving to Reno, Nev., were stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer for speeding. Kimberly Joan Reed and Rita Lena Jamerson later filed a complaint that the officer was discourteous.
Using a tape recording of the stop, the CHP said the officer had acted professionally and that the complaint was false.
Criminal charges were brought against them. But Solano County’s judge said the charges against the women were unconstitutional.
The state Legislature revised citizen complaint procedures about law officers after the Rodney King beating off March 1991. In response to a number of false allegations that came up as a result of the revisions, the Legislature put this section into effect.