People v. Stanistreet, S102722.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation58 P.3d 465,127 Cal.Rptr.2d 633,29 Cal.4th 497
Docket NumberNo. S102722.,S102722.
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Shaun STANISTREET, Defendant and Appellant. The People, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Barbara Joyce Atkinson, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date05 December 2002

Superior Court, Ventura County; John J. Hunter1, Judge.

Andrew Wolf, Ventura, for Defendant and Appellant Shaun Stanistreet.

Steven Warner, Ventura, for Defendant and Appellant Barbara Joyce Atkinson.

ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Daniel P. Tokaji, Mark D. Rosenbaum, Los Angeles; ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Alan L. Schlosser, for Defendants and Appellants.

Douglas E. Mirell and Karen R. Thorland, Century City, for National Association for Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement and Professor Samuel Walker as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Appellants.

Michael D. Bradbury, District Attorney, Michael D. Schwartz and Douglas H. Ridley, Deputy District Attorneys, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Lewis, D'Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard, Joseph Arias and Christopher D. Lockwood, San Bernardino, for City of San Bernardino as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

Rains, Lucia & Wilkinson and Alison Berry Wilkinson for Peace Officers' Research Association of California Legal Defense Fund as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

Jones & Mayer, Martin J. Mayer, Long Beach, and Michael R. Capizzi, Santa Ana, for California State Sheriffs Association, California Police Chiefs Association and California Peace Officer's Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

Certiorari Denied May 5, 2003. See 123 S.Ct. 1944.


Penal Code 2 section 148.6 makes it a misdemeanor to file an allegation of misconduct against a peace officer knowing the allegation to be false. We must decide whether that section violates constitutional free speech rights. Relying primarily on R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992) 505 U.S. 377, 112 S.Ct. 2538, 120 L.Ed.2d 305 (R.A.V.

), defendants argue, and the Court of Appeal found, that section 148.6 is unconstitutional because it proscribes knowingly false accusations of misconduct against peace officers only and not against others. "By protecting only peace officers," the Court of Appeal said, "section 148.6 selectively prohibits expression because of its content. It therefore violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution." We conclude that section 148.6 is constitutional on its face.

Section 148.6 proscribes only constitutionally unprotected speech-knowingly false statements of fact. Moreover, it does not apply to all accusations of misconduct against peace officers but only to complaints filed with a law enforcement agency in a way that legally obligates the agency to investigate the complaint. The circumstance that it covers only those persons-peace officers-who will be the subject of the mandatory investigation does not render it unconstitutional.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The Court of Appeal summarized the underlying facts. "In a written complaint filed with the Oxnard Police Department, defendants Shaun Stanistreet and Barbara Joyce Atkinson accused an Oxnard police officer of committing lewd conduct at a Police Activities League (PAL) gathering. PAL is a police-sponsored group that works with at-risk youth. The officer was director of PAL. The charges proved to be false."

A jury found defendants guilty of violating section 148.5 (filing a knowingly false report of a criminal offense) and section 148.6, both misdemeanors. The trial court had instructed the jury that an element of each offense was that the defendants knew the allegation was false. Over a dissent, the appellate division of the superior court affirmed the judgments. The Court of Appeal transferred the case for decision (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 62) and reversed the judgments. It found that section 148.5 does not apply to complaints asserting misconduct by police officers and that section 148.6 is unconstitutional.

We granted the People's petition for review to decide whether section 148.6 is unconstitutional on its face.

II. Discussion
A. Section 148.6

Section 148.6, subdivision (a)(1), provides: "(1) Every person who files any allegation of misconduct against any peace officer, as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, knowing the allegation to be false, is guilty of a misdemeanor."3

The Legislature first enacted section 148.6 in 1995. (Stats. 1995, ch. 590, § 1; Assem. Bill No. 1732 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.).) At that time, a different statute made (and still makes) it a misdemeanor to report a felony or misdemeanor knowing the report to be false. (§ 148.5.) However, the courts had interpreted section 148.5 as not applying to complaints of police misconduct from members of the public. (Pena v. Municipal Court (1979) 96 Cal. App.3d 77, 83, 157 Cal.Rptr. 584; People v. Craig (1993) 26 Cal.Rptr.2d 184, 21 Cal. App.4th Supp. 1, 3, 6; see San Diego Police Officers Assn. v. San Diego Police Department (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 19, 22-23, 90 Cal.Rptr.2d 6.) The Legislature enacted section 148.6 to fill this gap.

The Court of Appeal recently explained the background leading to section 148.6's enactment. "The Legislature noted that since the Rodney King incident in March 1991, law enforcement agencies throughout the state had `revised their citizen complaint procedures to promote greater accountability on the part of their line officers.' (Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1732 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.).) However, a `glaringly negative side-effect which has resulted [was] the willingness on the part of many of our less ethical citizens to maliciously file false allegations of misconduct against officers in an effort to punish them for simply doing their jobs.' (Ibid.) Against this backdrop, the Legislature enacted section 148.6, in an attempt to curb a perceived rising tide of knowingly false citizens' complaints of misconduct by officers performing their duties." (San Diego Police Officers Assn. v. San Diego Police Department, supra, 76 Cal.App.4th at p. 23, 90 Cal.Rptr.2d 6.)

The bill's author provided additional background: "Yearly hundreds of unfounded and false complaints are filed against Peace Officers. In the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department alone, over 500 complaints were received of which approximately 60 to 70 % were unfounded. [¶] This bill will help prevent frivolous complaints which can affect the individual officer's future. For example, a Deputy Sheriff on a list for promotion to Sergeant receives a false report of misconduct, after which his promotion is deferred until the matter is resolved. After which, the complaint being found ungrounded, the Deputy has no recourse for any financial loss due to the delay." (Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1732, supra, p. 2.) A Senate committee report explained that section 832.5 requires complaints against peace officers be investigated and the records retained for at least five years. It noted concerns with fraudulent complaints and the "adverse impact upon a deputy's job mobility and promotional opportunity" these complaints can cause until they are resolved. (Sen. Com. on Criminal Procedure, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 1732 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.) pp. 2, 4.)

Thus, section 148.6 fills the gap created when the courts interpreted section 148.5 as not applying to complaints of police misconduct. But it does not merely extend section 148.5's protection to peace officers. Section 148.5 applies only to knowingly false reports "that a felony or misdemeanor has been committed," i.e., to reports of a criminal offense. By contrast, section 148.6 applies to all "citizens' complaints of police misconduct during the performance of an officer's duties that may or may not rise to the level of a criminal offense." (San Diego Police Officers Assn. v. San Diego Police Department, supra, 76 Cal.App.4th at p. 23, 90 Cal.Rptr.2d 6.) Accordingly, section 148.6 gives protection to peace officers that the Legislature has not given to others. As the Court of Appeal put it in this case, "It is not a crime to knowingly make such an accusation against a firefighter, a paramedic, a teacher, an elected official, or anyone else."

On the other hand, as the Senate committee report noted, the Penal Code also requires that every department or agency that "employs peace officers shall establish a procedure to investigate complaints by members of the public against the personnel of these departments or agencies, and shall make a written description of the procedure available to the public," and that "[c]ompiaints and any reports or findings relating to these complaints shall be retained for a period of at least five years." (§ 832.5, subds.(a), (b).) These provisions similarly apply only to complaints against peace officers. Section 832.5 does not require investigation or lengthy retention of such accusations against firefighters, paramedics, teachers, elected officials, or others.

B. General Principles

The right to criticize the government and governmental officials is among the quintessential rights Americans enjoy under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Californians enjoy under the California Constitution, article I, section 2.4 "[S]peech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government. The First and Fourteenth Amendments embody our `profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.'" (Garrison v. Louisiana (1964) 379 U.S. 64, 74-75, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125, quoting New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11...

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