When you can’t say you’re a cop

Better scratch “say you’re a cop” off the list of ways to get out of speeding tickets.

A federal appeals court has ruled that telling a cop who’s pulled you over that you’re a cop too is not protected speech under the First Amendment.

Wired.com says it’s the first case of its kind since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that forbid falsely claiming to have won military medals or served in the Armed Forces.

The appeals court upheld a Virginia law prohibiting people from claiming to be police officers, ruling in the case of Douglas Chappell, who tried to get out of a speeding ticket in October 2009 by telling the police officer that he was a cop, too.

The judge who wrote the decision let him have it:

Chappell hypothesizes the rights of third parties, arguing that the statute is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it “criminalizes the behavior of adults who attend costume parties dressed as a police officer, children playing cops and robbers, and actors portraying law enforcement officials.”

It is telling that these are the only hypotheticals appellant can conjure up. Of course, it is ludicrous to suggest that costumed party-goers, children, and actors will be prosecuted for pretending to be police officers. Despite acknowledging that a number of states “have impersonation statutes like that of Virginia,” Chappell does not point to a single case — in Virginia or elsewhere — where such a statute has been construed to cover his posited hypotheticals. We decline to facially invalidate § 18.2-174 just because Chappell can conceive of far-fetched applications involving innocent behavior.

The judge also rejected the driver’s claim that the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Stolen Valor Act opened the door to letting him go free…

Chappell did not make the false claim of being a police officer as mere “bar stool braggadocio,” but rather for the material purpose of avoiding a speeding ticket. Impersonation with this latter purpose bears a closer kinship to the kind of identity theft that a state can surely proscribe consistent with the First Amendment. For “[w]here false claims are made to effect a fraud or secure moneys or other valuable considerations, . . . it is well established that the Government may restrict speech without affronting the First Amendment.”

But a dissenting judge said Chappell has the right to say he was a cop in some circumstances…

Chappell made no claim to be on-duty as a police officer, speeding for some legitimate purpose, but only claimed that he was employed as a police officer. In doing so, he was not acting as a police officer or assuming any of the “functions, powers, duties and privileges” of being an officer, but simply stating a false fact about his employment.

… this statute criminalizes, contrary to fact, feigning being an officer. This aspect of the statute is undeniably broad. It covers not only someone asserting that he is a police officer in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, but also, among other things: children playing cops and robbers on the front lawn; trainees at a police academy role-playing; and

actors in plays in which peace officers are characters. Indeed, it would have covered Chappell, even if he had not attempted to avoid a ticket but instead expressed his remorse for violating a traffic law, stating, “I am a police officer and should have known better.” Regardless of whether strict or intermediate scrutiny applies, I believe that this statute reaches a substantial number of impermissible applications and is thus


For the record, it’s a misdemeanor in Minnesota to falsely claim to be a police officer.

(Here’s the full Court of Appeals opinion)

  • Mark Gisleson

    More than one cop of my acquaintance has explained to me that, no, you never say you’re a cop, but when you hand them your drivers license, you always make sure they see the police I.D. in your wallet.

    And thanks to one of these guys, I have a Minneapolis Police dept. coffee cup that travels with me all the time because you never know…..

  • Kassie

    I just don’t get pulled over. I do that by not really speeding or breaking traffic laws. It helps that I’m a white woman in a Subaru.

  • Wendy

    Being a cop doesn’t always get you out of a ticket anymore anyway. “Professional courtesy” has been going away for some time now.

  • jon

    1) Being a cop shouldn’t get you out of a ticket any how, unless you are on duty, and have a reason for speeding…

    2) If one laws that was struck down, was done so because it might be enforced against people engaged in “bar stool braggadocio” but a similar law is up held because there are no instances of it being mis-used?

    I worry some times for the “common sense” that is being applied in the court room… not because I have an issue with common sense, but because the precedent (particularly in higher courts) seems to be growing in power. And common sense in one situation doesn’t always apply to other situations… and my faith in the courts to determine which is which dwindles with the budget we are giving to the courts.

    Personally I think we have far to many laws for any one person to be aware of all of them, and because of that it makes it nearly impossible to be a law abiding citizen. Exasebate this with police that don’t know the law, and we basically end up in a powder keg where if you piss off a cop they will find something to charge you with, because there are enough laws on the book that you’ll probably have violated one of them.