Court Upholds Law Criminalizing False Reports Of Police Misconduct

On April 17, 2008, Melissa Jean Crawley went to the Winona County, Minnesota Law Enforcement Center, met with Winona Police Department Sergeant Christopher Nelson, and informed Nelson that a police officer had forged her signature on a medical release form at a Winona hospital. Nelson asked Crawley who she thought had forged her signature. Crawley noted that the form was signed “Melissa Crawley at 0600 hours,” and informed Nelson that “it has to be a police officer that did that. I don’t sign things and date them 0600 hours.” The release related to treatment Crawley received at the hospital for injuries sustained in an assault that Winona police were investigating, and Crawley informed Nelson she thought her signature was forged by “the police officer who requested the records, whoever was doing the investigation.”

Nelson investigated Crawley’s report. During his investigation, Nelson spoke to a nurse who told Nelson that she saw Crawley sign the release while Crawley was at the hospital. Prosecutors charged Crawley with violating a statute that makes a misdemeanor the false reporting an act of police misconduct. After a jury found Crawley guilty, she appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, contending the statute violated the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees by creating a “content-based” prohibition on speech.

The Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute, though it narrowed how the statute could be applied. The Court started with the proposition that the statute was, in fact, a content-based regulation of speech “because whether a person may be prosecuted under the statute depends entirely on what the person says.” That was not the end of the analysis, though, the Court found, because “when possible, we uphold a law’s constitutionality by narrowly construing the law so as to limit its scope to conduct that falls outside First Amendment protection while clearly prohibiting its application to constitutionally protected expression.”

In the case of the “false-report statute,” the Court found that it could uphold the constitutionality of the statute by narrowly construing it to punish only false and defamatory statements about law enforcement officers. As the Court described, “to subject a person to criminal sanctions under the statute, the State must prove that the person informed a police officer, whose responsibilities include investigating or reporting police misconduct, that another officer has committed an act of police misconduct, knowing that the information is false. In addition, the State must prove that the officer receiving the information reasonably understands the information to refer to a specific individual.”

Because Crawley was originally tried and convicted under a different standard, the Court remanded her case for a new trial.

State v. Crawley, 819 N.W.2d 94 (Minn. 2012).