– Michael K. Browne, Director-Office of Police Conduct Review
A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision has affirmed a district court’s conviction for falsely reporting a crime in State v. Crawley, a case on remand from the Minnesota Supreme Court. Crawley is an important case for civilian oversight of law enforcement in Minnesota because it specifically addresses a critical issue of complaint filing with the oversight system and potential criminal liability for citizens who make false reports of police misconduct. We previously looked at this issue and published a blog post about it September 2012.
Brief Recap of Case’s History
To provide more context on this issue, a brief procedural history is fitting. In Crawley, the Defendant in the case was originally charged and convicted by a jury in district court in 2009 for falsely reporting a crime (Minn. Stat. 609.505(1)) and falsely reporting police misconduct (Minn. Stat. 609.505(2)). The Defendant in the case was sentenced for falsely reporting police misconduct, which was the greater charge (a gross misdemeanor instead of a misdemeanor) and there was no action on the lesser charge of falsely reporting a crime. State v. Crawley, 789 N.W.2d 899, 903 (Minn. Ct. App. 2010). The Defendant appealed the conviction to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appeals court reversed the conviction for falsely reporting police misconduct finding it unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, and remanded the case for sentencing on the lesser conviction of falsely reporting a crime. Id. at 910. The State appealed the reversed gross misdemeanor conviction to the Minneapolis Supreme Court. In 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Court of Appeals, finding Minn. Stat. 609.505(2) constitutional through narrower construction, but establishing a new standard for falsely reporting police misconduct. State v. Crawley, 819 N.W.2d 94 (Minn. 2012). The narrower construction requires that the statute only be applied to punish speech that meets Minnesota’s definition of defamation, an already established category of unprotected speech. Id. at 105. Meeting the defamation standard requires the prosecution to prove that the defamatory statement was communicated to a third party, that the defendant had actual knowledge that the statement of alleged police misconduct was false, that the statement would harm the officer’s reputation, and that the statement lowers the officer’s standing in the community. Id. at 104. The Supreme Court then remanded the case to be retried, applying this narrow construction and new standard. Id. at 115.
Procedural History since the 2012 Blog Post
Since our last post in 2012, after the Minnesota Supreme Court’s remand, the case was heard again in district court, with action taken in 2014. There, the court entered a conviction on the lesser misdemeanor charge of falsely reporting a crime, based on the original jury verdict in 2009. State v. Crawley, 2015 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 519, *2,2-3 (Minn. Ct. App. June 8, 2015). Readers should note the district court records show the case was not re-tried. The Defendant appealed the district court’s decision to enter a sentence on the lesser misdemeanor charge again to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The appeals court released their decision on the case this past week, which is the most recent opinion in the life-cycle of this case. In short, the reviewing court affirmed the district court’s conviction since “the supreme court’s holding was limited to the gross misdemeanor offense of falsely reporting police misconduct and did not affect the validity of the misdemeanor offense of falsely reporting a crime.” Id. at *4. With the conviction on the misdemeanor charge affirmed, it is unknown at this time whether the decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals will be additionally appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Implication on Complaint Filing
At this point, there are three central factors that limit a full analysis of the application of the narrower construction of falsely reporting police misconduct as a gross misdemeanor established by the Minnesota Supreme Court. First, the discussion became more generalized with the district court’s decision to move forward with a conviction on the lessor charge of falsely reporting a crime (a misdemeanor). Second, the district court did not apply the Minnesota Supreme Court’s ruling to the gross misdemeanor charge of falsely reporting police misconduct. Lastly, the difference in standards between falsely reporting a crime and falsely reporting police misconduct has not been fully explored. While the Supreme Court now requires knowledge of falsity in reporting police misconduct, it has not addressed that facet of falsely reporting a crime. This is of particular importance since the language of falsely reporting a crime requires knowledge of falsity as well, criminalizing a report only if it is made to a police officer “knowing that it is false and intending that the officer shall act in reliance upon it.” Minn. Stat. 609.505(1).
While the most recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in Crawley will expand the necessity for case-by-case analysis of situations with fewer general applications, the effect of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2012 decision on complaint filing with civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies in relatively undisturbed. For example, in response to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision, the Office of Police Conduct Review added the “Crawley Warning” in 2012 to each of its complaint forms:
Lastly, it is also left to be seen is how the narrow construction established in Crawley will look like in application in the future. The district court did not choose to apply it in retrial, convicting Crawley only on the lessor charge of falsely reporting a crime. Even in another recent case related to criminal defamation, State v. Turner, 864_N.W.2d 204_( Minn. Ct. App. 2015) the Minnesota Supreme Court considered Crawley but declined to elaborate on its narrow construction, apply it, or apply a similar standard. The court held instead that the criminal defamation statute (Minn. Stat. § 609.765) was simply unconstitutional, based on its inconsistency with civil defamation under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Turner at *6.
What can be discerned at this time is this: citizens can only be held criminally liable for reporting what they know to be false, whether the report be of a crime or police misconduct. As such, citizens should not be deterred from truthfully reporting any crimes or police misconduct they encounter. In closing, the OPCR will continue to monitor any developments in the Crawley case and the surrounding area of law. We will be sure to discuss any relevant updates on this blog.