617 F.3d 1198 (9th Cir. 2010), 08-50345, United States v. Alvarez

Docket Nº:08-50345.
Citation:617 F.3d 1198
Opinion Judge:MILAN D. SMITH, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Xavier ALVAREZ, aka Javier RGK-1 Alvarez, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:Jonathan D. Libby, Deputy Federal Public Defender, Los Angeles, CA, for the defendant-appellant. Craig H. Missakian, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Cyber and Intellectual Property Section, Los Angeles, CA, for the plaintiff-appellee.
Judge Panel:Before: T.G. NELSON, JAY S. BYBEE, and MILAN D. SMITH, JR., Circuit Judges. Dissent by Judge BYBEE. BYBEE, Circuit Judge, dissenting:
Case Date:August 17, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Page 1198

617 F.3d 1198 (9th Cir. 2010)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Xavier ALVAREZ, aka Javier RGK-1 Alvarez, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 08-50345.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

August 17, 2010

Argued and Submitted Nov. 4, 2009.

Page 1199

Jonathan D. Libby, Deputy Federal Public Defender, Los Angeles, CA, for the defendant-appellant.

Craig H. Missakian, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Cyber and Intellectual Property Section, Los Angeles, CA, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, R. Gary Klausner, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. 2:07-cr-01035-RGK-1.

Before: T.G. NELSON, JAY S. BYBEE, and MILAN D. SMITH, JR., Circuit Judges.

Dissent by Judge BYBEE.


MILAN D. SMITH, Circuit Judge:

Defendant-Appellant Xavier Alvarez conditionally pleaded guilty to one count of falsely verbally claiming to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, in violation of the Stolen Valor Act (the Act), 18 U.S.C. § 704(b), (c),1 reserving his right to appeal the Act's constitutionality.

Page 1200

The Act, as presently drafted, applies to pure speech; it imposes a criminal penalty of up to a year of imprisonment, plus a fine, for the mere utterance or writing of what is, or may be perceived as, a false statement of fact-without anything more.

The Act therefore concerns us because of its potential for setting a precedent whereby the government may proscribe speech solely because it is a lie. While we agree with the dissent that most knowingly false factual speech is unworthy of constitutional protection and that, accordingly, many lies may be made the subject of a criminal law without creating a constitutional problem, we cannot adopt a rule as broad as the government and dissent advocate without trampling on the fundamental right to freedom of speech. See Jonathan D. Varat, Deception and the First Amendment: A Central, Complex, and Somewhat Curious Relationship, 53 UCLA L.Rev. 1107, 1109 (2006) (" [A]ccepting unlimited government power to prohibit all deception in all circumstances would invade our rights of free expression and belief to an intolerable degree, including most notably-and however counterintuitively-our rights to personal and political self rule." ). Rather we hold that regulations of false factual speech must, like other content-based speech restrictions, be subjected to strict scrutiny unless the statute is narrowly crafted to target the type of false factual speech previously held proscribable because it is not protected by the First Amendment.

The rule the government and dissent urge us to apply in order to uphold the Act would, if adopted, significantly enlarge the scope of existing categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection. All previous circumstances in which lies have been found proscribable involve not just knowing falsity, but additional elements that serve to narrow what speech may be punished. Indeed, if the Act is constitutional under the analysis proffered by Judge Bybee, then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age, or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one's mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspects of their lives from time to time. Perhaps, in context, many of these lies are within the government's legitimate reach. But the government cannot decide that some lies may not be told without a reviewing court's undertaking a thoughtful analysis of the constitutional concerns raised by such government interference with speech.

Finding no appropriate way to avoid the First Amendment question Alvarez poses, we hold that the speech proscribed by the Act is not sufficiently confined to fit among the narrow categories of false speech previously held to be beyond the First Amendment's protective sweep. We then apply strict scrutiny review to the Act, and hold it unconstitutional because it is not narrowly tailored to achieving a compelling governmental interest.


Xavier Alvarez won a seat on the Three Valley Water District Board of Directors in 2007. On July 23, 2007, at a joint meeting with a neighboring water district board, newly-seated Director Alvarez arose and introduced himself, stating " I'm a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I'm still around."

Alvarez has never been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, nor has he spent a single day as a marine or in the

Page 1201

service of any other branch of the United States armed forces. In short, with the exception of " I'm still around," his self-introduction was nothing but a series of bizarre lies.

Alvarez's misrepresentations during the 2007 water district board meeting were only the latest in a long string of fabrications. Apparently, Alvarez makes a hobby of lying about himself to make people think he is " a psycho from the mental ward with Rambo stories." The summer before his election to the water district board, a woman informed the FBI about Alvarez's propensity for making false claims about his military past. Alvarez told her that he won the Medal of Honor for rescuing the American Ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that he had been shot in the back as he returned to the embassy to save the American flag. Alvarez reportedly told another woman that he was a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot who had been shot down but then, with the help of his buddies, was able to get the chopper back into the sky.

In addition to his lies about military service, Alvarez has claimed to have played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, to have worked as a police officer (who was fired for using excessive force), and to have been secretly married to a Mexican starlet. As the district court observed, Alvarez " live[s] in a world, a make-believe world where [he] just make[s] up stories all the time.... [T]here's no credibility in anything [he] say[s]."

After the FBI obtained a recording of the water district board meeting, Alvarez was indicted in the Central District of California on two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 704(b), (c)(1). Specifically, he was charged with " falsely represent[ing] verbally that he had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor when, in truth and as [he] knew, he had not received the Congressional Medal of Honor." Alvarez appears to be the first person charged and convicted under the present version of the Act.

Alvarez moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming that the Act is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him. The district court denied the motion. Alvarez then pleaded guilty to the first count, reserving his right to appeal the First Amendment question. He was sentenced to pay a $100 special assessment and a $5,000 fine, to serve three years of probation, and to perform 416 hours of community service. This case addresses Alvarez's timely appeal of the constitutional issue.


Alvarez brings both facial and as-applied 2 challenges to the validity of the Act under the First Amendment. We review the constitutional question de novo. See Perry v. L.A. Police Dep't, 121 F.3d 1365, 1367-68 (9th Cir.1997).

We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


The Act provides:

Page 1202

Whoever falsely represents himself or herself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 704(b). The prescribed prison term is enhanced to one year if the decoration involved is the Congressional Medal of Honor, a distinguished-service cross, a Navy cross, an Air Force cross, a silver star, or a Purple Heart. Id. § 704(c), (d).


The Act proscribes false verbal or written representations about one's being awarded Congressionally authorized military honors and decorations. The parties do not dispute that the Act " seek[s] to regulate ‘ only ... words.’ " Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 612, 93 S.Ct. 2908, 37 L.Ed.2d 830 (1973) (quoting Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518, 520, 92 S.Ct. 1103, 31 L.Ed.2d 408 (1972)). Moreover, the Act targets words about a specific subject: military honors. The Act is plainly a content-based regulation of speech.

Content-based speech restrictions ordinarily are subjected to strict scrutiny. See United States v. Playboy Entm't Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803, 813, 120 S.Ct. 1878, 146 L.Ed.2d 865 (2000). However, there is an exception to the ordinary rule for " certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571-72, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031 (1942). As explained recently by the Supreme Court in United States v. Stevens:

" From 1791 to the present," ... the First Amendment has " permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas," and has never " include[d] a freedom to disregard these traditional limitations." These " historic and traditional categories long familiar to the bar[ ]" [ ] includ[e] obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct....

__ U.S. __, 130 S.Ct. 1577, 1584, 176 L.Ed.2d 435 (2010) (internal citations omitted); see also Chaplinsky, 315 U.S. at 572, 62 S.Ct. 766 (explaining that...

To continue reading