To Protect and to Serve: Police Defamation Suits Against California Citizens Who Report Officer Misconduct
Communications Lawyer
June 2011

This article analytically critiques the California statute that provides police officers with a unique, specific avenue to sue citizens who file reports of alleged police misconduct.

It sets forth the "official proceeding privilege" under California Civil Code section 47(b). This provides for an unqualified privilege from tort liability, for citizens who urge law enforcement to investigate suspected violations of the law. The article then explains California Civil Code section 47.5. This permits a police officer to bring a defamation action against an individual who files a complaint against a police officer. It reviews the constitutional challenges to section 47.5, and case law where the California Court of Appeal has reached conflicting conclusions. It also explains the California Supreme Court's ruling on People v. Stanistreet. This case upheld the constitutionality of the California Penal Code statute that makes it a misdemeanor to file a knowing false allegation of misconduct against a peace officer. The analysis provides that under federal law, the Ninth Circuit has not resolved whether section 47.5 is constitutional.

The authors argue 47.5 is a frightening proposition, with skewed results that do not favor the public. They conclude that a law which subjects citizens to loss of rights and money by filing a police misconduct report will not encourage open communication between citizens and their police.