On November 18, 2016, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, held in People v. Wilson Morera-Munoz that Vehicle Code Section 31, which criminalizes the making of false statements to law enforcement officers while they are engaged in the performance of their duties under that code, was not an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment.


Just after midnight on September 2, 2014, a San Francisco police officer was dispatched to investigate a report of a person asleep behind the wheel of a vehicle parked in a lane of travel.  Defendant was the vehicle’s sole occupant.  He was in the driver’s seat, slouched forward with his seat belt fastened. The vehicle was not running but the keys were in the ignition.  When the officer reached in to retrieve the keys, he noticed an odor of alcohol.  The officer then ordered the defendant to exit the vehicle and stand on the sidewalk.

When questioned, defendant denied having had anything to drink, and said he had been on his way home from work.  He agreed to take a breath test, which showed blood-alcohol levels of 0.260 percent and 0.266 percent.  He was then arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

He was charged with several misdemeanors, including violation of Vehicle Code Section 31.  On January 28, 2015, a jury found the defendant guilty of that single count.  The trial court suspended imposition of sentence and placed defendant on 18 months of probation with various terms and conditions.

On February 9, 2015, defendant appealed his conviction to the Superior Court’s Appellate Division arguing that Section 31 is facially invalid under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution because it criminalizes the giving of any false information to a peace officer without regard to the information’s materiality.

On April 18, 2016, the Appellate Division reversed defendant’s conviction.  The court relied on United States v. Alvarez (2012) 132 S.Ct. 2537 (Alvarez), in concluding that Section 31 must be interpreted narrowly to require the false statement at issue to have materially affected the performance of the officer’s duties. [Alvarez had falsely claimed that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor.]

On May 25, 2016, the Court of Appeal, on its own motion, accepted the case for review.

Court’s Discussion

“The People assert the Appellate Division erred when it held Section 31 violates the First Amendment because the statute does not specifically target ‘material’ misstatements made to peace officers,” and that “the appellate division should have construed . . . the statute to include a materiality provision.”

The Court noted that Section 31 was enacted in 1965 and provides that, “’No person shall give, either orally or in writing, information to a peace officer while in the performance of his duties under the provisions of this code when such person knows that the information is false.’  Legislative history indicates the statute was primarily ‘intended to curtail [the practice of knowingly giving traffic officers false information] in accident investigation and reporting,’ with the goal of ‘mak[ing] the accident reports more valid and prevent[ing] a waste of manpower in disproving such false statements.’”

“As a general matter, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech means that the government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content.”

However, the right to free speech is not without limits and “the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that certain categories of speech do not enjoy the benefit of full First Amendment protection,” such as obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement to riot, and speech integral to criminal conduct.

The Appellate Division concluded that Section 31 was unconstitutional by relying “heavily on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Alvarez, which invalidated, on First Amendment grounds, a federal statute criminalizing the making of statements falsely asserting that one had received certain military awards.  That opinion is readily distinguishable from the present case.”

At issue in Alvarez was the Stolen Valor Act which made it illegal for one to “falsely represent 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.”

The Court noted that the Stolen Valor Act “by its plain terms applies to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person,” [and] . . . surmised that the ‘sweeping, quite unprecedented reach of the statute puts it in conflict with the First Amendment.’”

The Court also “distinguished statutes prohibiting false representations that one is speaking on behalf of the government and/or impersonating a government officer, noting these provisions ‘also protect the integrity of Government processes, quite apart from merely restricting false speech.’”

However, Section 31 “legitimately criminalizes the making of false statements that interfere with the proper enforcement of the Vehicle Code.”  Furthermore, unlike the Stolen Valor Act, “which targets falsity and nothing more, Section 31 does not imply the broader proposition that false statements falling within its purview are unprotected when made to any person, at any time, in any context.” (Emphasis in original.)

“Section 31 criminalizes only those lies that are particularly likely to produce harm.  The People correctly argue that Section 31 is content neutral.”  The section “only targets falsehoods when uttered to an officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties.”

The Court agreed that it is correct that “Section 31 does not explicitly limit actionable false statements to statements that are material to an officer’s investigation . . . [but] when properly construed the statute’s perceived flaw is rendered moot.”

The Court of Appeal notes that “it is settled that courts may construe statutes in a manner that renders them constitutional.”  And when “(p)roperly construed, the speech targeted by Section 31 is narrow. Unlike the Stolen Valor Act, Section 31 does not prohibit a certain type of false statement regardless of its setting, whether it is taken in the context of a personal conversation or whether it is uttered within the public domain.  We conclude the statute prohibits deceit only as to a material fact pertinent to an investigatory matter undertaken by a peace officer pursuant to the Vehicle Code.”


It is important to note that this decision involves only Vehicle Code Section 31, which prohibits individuals from giving false information to a peace officer who is engaged in the performance of his or her duties under the Vehicle Code.  It does not establish a general rule applying to all contact with peace officers.

However, it does reaffirm that not all speech is protected by the First Amendment.  As the Court states, “a look to our Penal Code and Civil Code reveals that there are many categories of speech on which the state has placed certain limitations.  For example, our justice system has criminalized perjury, the making of criminal threats and soliciting bribes.  These statutory provisions penalize individuals for their written or spoken words, but each serves an important governmental purpose.”

This prohibition set forth in Vehicle Code Section 31 is content neutral and the “principal inquiry in determining content-neutrality . . . is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of [agreement or] disagreement with the message it conveys.”

But, “the falsities governed here [Section 31] have no value in and of themselves, are necessarily injurious, and do not ‘chill’ otherwise valuable or protected speech.”  The Court found that “Section 31 criminalizes only those lies that are particularly likely to produce harm.”

As such, under the Vehicle Code, including the charge of violation of Section 31, providing false information when enforcing the Vehicle Code when appropriate, is not unconstitutionally invalid.

As with all legal issues, it is imperative that you seek out and secure advice and guidance from your agency’s designated legal advisor.

As always, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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