The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a defendant’s conviction for filing a false police report because the report was made to a deputy sheriff instead of a police officer. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gernrich.
In May of 2014, the defendant was an inmate at the Worcester County House of Correction. A jail guard conducted an inspection of the defendant’s cell and told him he would need to remove material that was covering an air vent. The defendant immediately accused the guard of touching his penis. Shortly thereafter, the defendant called a hotline number that was set up pursuant to a federal law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to report the alleged sexual assault. In response, the commanding officer at the jail initiated an investigation and ultimately forwarded the defendant’s complaint to a deputy sheriff who served as the jail’s PREA certified investigator. The deputy sheriff interviewed the defendant, the accused guard, and the defendant’s cellmate. He also looked at surveillance video of the alleged incident and determined the defendant had lied in reporting that he had been sexually assaulted. The case was referred to the Worcester District Attorney’s Office, which charged the defendant with filing a false police report. Following a jury-waived trial, a Clinton District Court judge found the defendant guilty and he appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to directly review the case (rather than allowing the Appeals Court to first consider it).
The statute under which the defendant was convicted prohibits individuals from knowingly and intentionally making a false report of a crime to a police officer. The defendant’s primary appellate argument was that the deputy sheriff who received his statement did not qualify as a police officer. The Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that the law does not offer a definition of “police officer.” Where a statute does not define its terms, courts must apply their accepted and usual meanings. The Court reviewed the definition of police officers contained in other Massachusetts statutes to conclude that not all law enforcement officers qualify as police officers, because police officers have broad authority not granted to other law enforcement officers. For example, a police officer has the expansive right to make an arrest without a warrant (a right not granted to a deputy sheriff). A deputy sheriff has long been considered a “peace officer” and can only make a warrantless arrest if the defendant commits a crime involving a breach of peace in his presence. Further, the vast majority of a deputy sheriff’s responsibilities involves non-police responsibilities such as transferring prisoners in his custody. Finally, the rule of lenity supports the Court’s conclusion that a deputy sheriff is not a police officer. The rule of lenity says that if there is ambiguous language in a law, the ambiguity cannot be resolved in a way that disadvantages a criminal defendant. Accordingly, because the deputy sheriff did not satisfy the statute’s requirement of a false report to a police officer, the SJC reversed the defendant’s conviction and ordered judgment to enter for him.
It will be interesting to see if the Legislature amends the statute in response to the Court’s opinion. Deputy sheriffs who work in the jails will now have no recourse if witnesses lie to them during investigations.