At some point or another, just about everyone has pretended to be a police officer, whether it was while playing cops and robbers as a child or as a Halloween costume as an adult. But there is a big distinction between wearing a costume or a child pretending to arrest a friend and the crime of impersonating a peace officer. Here’s what you should know about Penal Code 538d.
California Law Regarding Police Impersonation
California state Penal Code (PC) 538d makes it a crime to fraudulently pretend to be a police officer. Specifically, the law prohibits wearing, exhibiting or using “the authorized uniform, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing, of a peace officer, with the intent of fraudulently impersonating a peace officer, or of fraudulently inducing the belief that he or she is a peace officer” or wearing, exhibiting or using a badge for the same purpose.
In plain English, this means it’s not illegal to wear the costume of a police officer, even one with a particularly realistic badge secured to the front of the uniform. Instead, someone is only guilty of impersonating law enforcement officers if they actually act present themselves in some way as a police officer. In fact, while most people who pretend to be police officers tend to wear some kind of uniform or at least display a badge to help further their ruse, you could actually be charged with police impersonation without a badge or uniform if you try to claim you’re an off-duty or undercover officer.
Penalties and Defenses for 538d PC
Impersonating a peace officer is a misdemeanor in California. The maximum sentence is on year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. In many cases, those convicted of the crime will only face probation. Falsely representing yourself as a police officer to gain information or financial advantage will cause the prosecutors and judge to consider a higher penalty.
It is also possible to fight these charges. Common defenses include having no intent to commit fraud, not impersonating an officer or using a film or television prop. Having no intent to defraud is the reason strippers can get away with dressing up like police officers and telling someone they are “under arrest” before giving them a lap dance -the person getting the dance generally knows the situation is not real because the stripper is not wearing a realistic-looking costume and he or she (or a friend) hired the stripper for the party.
Not impersonating an officer is a simple defense, but effective. A good example is a security officer with a uniform similar to the police who placed someone under a citizen’s arrest. Someone may claim he was impersonating an officer, but unless he actually said he was a police officer or act in a way to infer he was, he didn’t violate the law. That being said, if you defend yourself by claiming you were impersonating a fire marshal, doctor, lawyer or other professional, you could face other charges instead.
The film and television prop exception is the least commonly used defense, particularly because it requires obtaining permission from the police to wear a uniform as a prop for a play, television or film. If this applies to your situation though, it can be a strong defense.
Differences Between False Impersonation
A similar crime often charged alongside police impersonation is that of false impersonation. This crime involves attempting to pretend to be another person in order to benefit from the impersonation or to harm another person (whether or not the attempt was successful). False impersonation requires impersonating a specific person. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that whereas impersonating a law enforcement official is a misdemeanor, impersonating an individual can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. As a felony, it’s punishable by up to 3 years in prison. Generally, felony charges are reserved for those who successfully gained something or harmed the person they were impersonating.
If you have been accused of this serious crime, it is critical you contact a police impersonation lawyer in San Diego immediately. You can schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.
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