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Is it Constitutional to Impersonate a Cop After U.S. v. Alvarez?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

Laws that punish people who impersonate a police officer are still constitutional under the First Amendment, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Impersonating an officer is not a new offense and most states criminalize penalize fake cops. The constitutionality of those laws came under question after US v. Alvarez.

But the majority of the court agreed that case doesn't apply to impersonating an officer.

In U.S. v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act. The rationale was that lying about being a war hero is protected by the First Amendment.

While those lies may be offensive, they don't threaten public safety or the rule of law.

Impersonating an officer is a different matter. It could harm citizens if fake cops are abusive and it could also decrease overall police authority.

The Fourth Circuit pointed out that Alvarez specifically upholds laws that prohibit impersonating a government officer. While the First Amendment does protect some lies, it does not protect lies that endanger others.

Not all the judges agreed however.

Judge James Andrew Wynn Jr. dissented and argued that Alvarez clearly indicates that the law should not stand.

The First Amendment protections described in Alvarez protect some false speech. Any burdens on free speech must be as narrow as possible and promote a legitimate government interest.

The law could have been written to be less of a burden on free speech while still upholding that government interest, Wynn wrote. The other two judges did not agree.

It's unclear whether the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court but for the time being impersonating an officer is not within your First Amendment rights. Free speech is only free if it does not pose a danger to others.

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