Vehicle Code section 31, which criminalizes the making of false statements to peace officers who are engaged in the performance of their duties, does not violate the First Amendment. 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. 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. 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 an intermediate level of 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.
Although the jury should have been instructed regarding the element of materiality, the failure to so instruct was harmless error. 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 failure of the trial court to instruct on the element of materiality was error. However, 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.
The full opinion is on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A148325.PDF