Lee Davis: When Is A Lie A Federal Crime?

Sunday, November 25, 2012 - by Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Earlier this year the Supreme Court decided US v. Alvarez, a case that tests the limits upon which a community must accept contemptible conduct--in this case speech--from locally elected officials.

Xavier Alvarez is a brazen liar. But is he a criminal? As an elected official for the Three Valley Water District Board with headquarters in Claremont, California, he introduced himself at a meeting. Alvarez claimed he served 25 years in the Marine Corps and that he was wounded in combat--this is false. He boasted that he played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once had been married to a Mexican film starlet--these claims are equally untrue. But the whopper that got him indicted in federal court was the statement that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
By making that statement he violated the Stolen Valor Act by falsely claiming to have received the honor. By all accounts Alvarez was making a pathetic attempt to draw attention to himself to those assembled at the municipal meeting.

The Stolen Valor Act states that whoever falsely represents himself, verbally or in writing, to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States ... shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

Faced with the obvious, his own statements, Alvarez pled guilty in federal court but he reserved the right to appeal his conviction. The appeal eventually found its way to the Supreme Court.

The question before the court was whether the Stolen Valor Act violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment? One circuit court had already found the act constitutional and another found it to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court accepted the case to address the split authority on this issue.

In June of this year, the Supreme Court found the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy writing for the majority in a 6-3 decision stated that content based restrictions like the Stolen Valor Act are subject to strict scrutiny to see if the law violates the First Amendment. To be sure, some false statements--false statements of defamation or false statements to federal law enforcement agents are crimes. True threats that present a grave and imminent danger are also crimes. But false statements alone do not present the type of threat that warrants intrusion into the first amendment. False statements of the kind made by Alvarez create no harm--so the court found. Obnoxious behavior and reprehensible conduct, yes, but not a crime. The remedy to false statements is true statements and the Court noted that Alvarez had been roundly criticized and rebuked once his claims we found to be untrue.

In the words of Justice Kennedy: "The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace. Though few might find respondent's statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment."

Here is the full opinion:U.S. v. Alvarez, 132 S.Ct. 2537 (U.S.,2012)

(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at lee@davis-hoss.com or at 266-0605.)

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