Federal judge rules Nevada law on "defaming a police officer" unconstitutional
The suit was originally filed by Robert Eakins against the city of Reno challenging NRS 199.325 which makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly file false allegations of misconduct against a peace officer. Attorneys for Eakins argued that statute violates the First Amendment.
In an 11-page order issued last week, Hagen agreed. He quoted the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Times v. Sullivan saying there is “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
He said the defense didn’t convince him that police officers are so different from other public officials and the general public that they must have special protections from false allegations of misconduct.
Lawyers had argued peace officers should get special treatment because their jobs subject them to the danger of violence and that allegations of misconduct lower public confidence in police, increasing the potential for violence.
They said those are some of the reasons why people who assault or murder police officers receive enhanced penalties under the law.
“While all of these reasons justify treating peace officers differently as regards the statutes concerning assault, battery and murder, none of these reasons sufficiently justifies treating peace officers differently as regards false allegations of misconduct,” Hagen said in his order.
The defense also argued that, without a penalty for making a false report of police misconduct, there is nothing to prevent people from “sullying police reputations for sport.”
“Defendant has made no showing that there is a serious problem of false allegations of police misconduct leading to violence against police officers,” Hagen countered.
Hagen also pointed out that police officers have always been considered public officials and that other public officials receive less protection from false allegations than private citizens do.
And he agreed with attorneys for Eakins that public discourse on police conduct is necessary and increases confidence in peace officers. He also expressed concern that the law could have a chilling effect on citizens making complaints when they are valid.
No one involved in the case at the Attorney General’s Office was available Friday to comment on whether they would appeal the decision.