Wednesday, January 11, 2017

False Statements During DUI Stop Can Result In Charges of Lying To A Cop

An appeals Court in California recently decided that telling a cop you had nothing to drink during a dui investigation can be grounds for conviction of Vehicle Code 31, false statements to a law enforcement officer.

The facts of the case People v. Morera-Munoz, are as follows:
While being questioned by police regarding the possibility that he was driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), defendant denied that he had been drinking. He was subsequently charged with various DUI misdemeanors and for providing false information to police (Veh. Code, § 31). He was found guilty of violating section 31. He appealed to the appellate division of the superior court, arguing that section 31 violates the First Amendment by criminalizing the giving of any false information without regard to its materiality. After the appellate division declared the statute unconstitutional and entered judgment for defendant, the cause was transferred to the Court of Appeal. Held: Reversed. The First Amendment prohibits the restriction of speech because of its content. 

California Vehicle Code Section 31 prohibits a person from giving false information to a peace officer while in the performance of his duties under the Vehicle Code, when the person knows the information is false. It was intended to make reports of accidents more valid and prevent a waste of manpower in disproving false statements during drunk driving investigations.  Section 31 legitimately criminalizes the making of false statements that interfere with the proper enforcement of the Vehicle Code and therefore does not implicate protected expressive activity. It is content neutral, and imposes only an incidental burden on speech. Under First Amendment scrutiny, such a restriction is valid if it furthers an important governmental interest which is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the restriction on speech is no greater than essential to further that interest. When construed to include a materiality element, section 31 meets constitutional requirements, the Court found.

In order to convict, the prosecution is required to prove the false statement was material in order to comply with due process standards. The test for materiality is "would a reasonable peace officer find the information relevant and material in his or her investigation?"  The Court found in this case the Judge failed to instruct the jury on this point but found that error harmless. The Court observed "the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because defendant's responses to the officer investigating a possible DUI offense were clearly material to that inquiry." Thanks CCAP.

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