Police officers act like cyborgs sometimes but they are human, just like you and me. Being human makes police officers susceptible to everyday human pressures, just like you and me. If you ever fibbed to your parents to cover for your sibling, fudged a time sheet because you got to work late, or made up a fake illness to avoid some annoying social responsibility, you already understand how tempting reporting those "alternative facts" can be.
Can Police Offices Lie in Their Reports?
Of course police can lie in their reports! We just reviewed several situations where human beings would be incentivized to lie. The question we should be asking is...
What are the Consequences of a Police Officer Filing a False Report?
Penal Code § 118.1 makes it illegal for Police Officer to file a false report. It can be charged as a felony with potential punishment of years in prison. Serious stuff.
When Does a Police Officer Violate Penal Code section 118.1?
In order to violate PC § 118.1 (Filing a False Report by a Police Officer), the report's author must be a law enforcement officer and they must be acting in an official capacity. A mall cop can write whatever fantasy she wants in her official reports without violating this law, even if that mall cop turned out to be a moonlighting law enforcement officer.
The report must also relate to a criminal matter. So, when a California Highway Patrol officer is writing up a non-criminal report - say, a report of a fender bender or an abatement tag - there is no risk of violating this law. However, if that same officer includes her false report as part of a later criminal report (e.g., "For a description of the reckless driving, see my accident report"), reference the false report could violate PC 118.1 because the reference would incorporate the false non-criminal report into a criminal report.
And it can't be trivial either. The false statement must be regarding a material matter in the case. Imagine the following scenario: the sister of a sheriff's deputy is running for governor and in an attempt to smear her opponent, falsely writes in all his reports that every drunk driver had a bumper sticker supporting that other candidate. Our deputy's weird little scheme is unlikely to violate PC §118.1 unless the existence or non-existence matters in the case.
Finally, a law enforcement officer can only cross this line if he or she knows the information is false when writing the report. Patrol cops drafting a restraining order application based on made-up allegations, detectives who conclude an investigation summary by fingering a suspect later exonerated by DNA evidence, a rookie deputy documenting false tips fed from a corrupt sergeant. None of these scenarios appear to violate Penal Code 118.1 because the person making the report does not know what they documented is false.
How Can Anyone Prove What Someone Knew?
Most crimes require a prosecutor to prove the defendant's mental state, or what the person was thinking when they did the action that makes up the crime. With Penal Code § 118.1, the prosecutor need only prove that the law enforcement officer knew the information was false when making the report. There is no "bad intentions" requirement to break this law. Laziness is enough. Stupidity is enough. And with more and more law enforcement officers are wearing video cameras, it can be very easy to know what information the officer knew at the time of the report.
If you were arrested and a police officer wrote a false report, your case could be dismissed if the only evidence is that officer's testimony and that officer "pleads the 5th" / refuses to incriminate himself on the stand. There is no guarantee in every case, but this is another tool in the toolbox for helping the innocent stay that way. Contact Mr. Chambers today and defend yourself against false police reports.