MN Supreme Court Considers the Constitutionality of False Police Misconduct Reports

By Michael K. Browne, Assistant Director – Civilian Review Authority

I. The Origins of State v. Crawley

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It is important to understand what is actually prohibited by the statute, and any practical effects of § 609.505 on the CRA

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently discussed the constitutionality and effects of Minnesota Statute § 609.505(2), which imposes criminal penalties for communicating knowingly false information concerning an act of police misconduct. The case began when Melissa Jean Crawley reported to a sergeant in the Winona Police Department that she believed a Winona officer forged her signature on a medical release form. The sergeant initiated an investigation based on this information and spoke with a witness who saw Crawley sign the form. Crawley was charged under Minnesota Statute § 609.505(2) for falsely reporting police misconduct.

Crawley was convicted in the district court and appealed, stating that the statute violated her First Amendment rights. The Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that her statement was an “intentional lie,” and concluded that intentional lies are not protected by the First Amendment. The court reasoned that intentional lies fail to “materially advance” the interests of society “in uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate on public issues” and therefore do not deserve First Amendment protections. (Read the full Court of Appeals opinion PDF). The court noted that intentional lies can be regulated without considering the content of the speech.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision, holding that § 609.505(2) violated the First Amendment to the Constitution as written. They ruled that because the statute criminalized false critical information but not false exonerating information concerning police misconduct, the statute regulated the content of speech in a non-neutral fashion. The State of Minnesota appealed the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

II. Crawley and the Minnesota Supreme Court

In State v. Crawley (PDF), the Minnesota Supreme Court first noted that the law could be in conflict with the Constitution, but the conflict could be fixed by a legal concept called narrow interpretation. The Court traditionally prefers to avoid constitutional conflicts and chose to interpret the statute in this manner. (See Einer Elhauge. Statutory Default Rules: How to Interpret Unclear Legislation. Harvard University Press (2008), p. 237–39 for a discussion of the Canon of Constitutional Avoidance).

In the Court’s written opinion, Justice Anderson reduced the statute to a form of per se defamation which prohibits publication of harmful false information about another’s business activities. This form of defamation has been tested by the United States Supreme Court and found to be in compliance with constitutional principles. (See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. for an example). Section 609.505 criminalizes this specific form of defamation under a narrow set of circumstances.

Like per se defamation based on false statements concerning another’s business practices, the Court interpreted the statute to prohibit reporting false misconduct to “a certain audience—a peace officer whose responsibilities include investigating and reporting police misconduct,” such as a supervisor, lieutenant, or the Internal Affairs Unit. The court further recognized that the statement must concern a specific, identifiable officer to trigger the statute, not a general condemnation of the activity of the police.

The Court determined that for the prosecution to succeed under § 609.505, it must prove a mental state greater than the standard accepted by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). It requires the prosecution to prove actual knowledge that the statement was defamatory rather than a reckless disregard as to whether the statement was true or false.

The Minnesota Supreme Court distinguished false allegations of misconduct from false exonerating information, addressing the concerns raised by the appellate court. Justice Anderson reasoned that while false accusations of police misconduct may trigger costly investigations and harm the reputation of officers, false statements in support of officers do not. Hence, the Court acknowledged that the statute serves an important public policy objective, preserving resources that could be assigned to actual misconduct cases.

The Court recognized the potential chilling effect of the statute: that a citizen may hesitate before filing a police misconduct complaint, fearing that she would be punished if it were found to be without basis. The Court stated that because the statute only restricts “knowing falsehoods,” those with valid complaints would not be deterred from criticizing the government.

Accordingly, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and remanded the case for a new trial consistent with the Court’s reworking of the statute.

III. The Practical Effects of § 609.505 on the CRA

The ruling should not dissuade citizens from filing complaints with the CRA, and ultimately may have little impact on the lives of Minnesotans. It is important to understand what is actually prohibited by the statute; a citizen must knowingly communicate a false statement concerning a specific incident of misconduct to an officer charged with investigating misconduct. This means that the citizen must intentionally lie about a specific officer’s conduct; voicing concerns or opinions about the activities of the police does not create criminal liability.

From another perspective, reporting perceived misconduct that turns out to be lawful would not trigger § 609.505. The citizen must knowingly make a false statement; if one accurately reports perceived misconduct, the statute is not triggered regardless of the outcome. The statute narrowly targets those reports that are intentional lies designed to harm an officer’s reputation and lead to discipline.

It should be also noted that Minnesota law already punishes these intentional lies as criminal defamation in § 609.765, a statute drafted in 1964. The statute prohibits communicating, with knowledge, a defamatory statement to a third party without the consent of the defamed. The statute specifically highlights statements regarding “business practices,” and falsely reporting an individual officer’s misconduct could likely be considered criminal defamation of an officer’s business practices. Defamation is also actionable in civil court.

Finally, the Civilian Police Review Authority is staffed by citizens, not sworn peace officers, and § 605.505 likely does not apply to complaints filed with the office. However, to file a complaint with the CRA, citizens must sign their complaints under oath (PDF), affirming that “under penalty of perjury, the statements made herein are true.” Minnesota statute § 609.48 outlines perjury, a crime punishable by incarceration and significant fines. While some complaints submitted to the CRA are found to be without merit, only intentional lies expose a citizen to charges of perjury or criminal defamation.

IV. Conclusion

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Crawley should not dissuade citizens with honest and sincerely believed complaints about police misconduct from coming forward. It does not apply to the complaints filed with non-sworn personnel, although other measures are in place to hold those who bring false reports to the organization accountable.

Photograph provided courtesy of Ryan Patrick
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