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United States v. Chappell, No. 10-4746

Decided:  August 14, 2012

Defendant Douglas Chappell appealed his conviction under Virginia’s police impersonation statute, Virginia Code § 18.2-174.  Chappell challenged the constitutionality of the statute, arguing that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  Specifically, Chappell argued that the statute’s clause prohibiting a person from “falsely assum[ing] or pretend[ing] to be [a law enforcement officer]” was unconstitutionally overbroad and was a content-based speech restriction that was not narrowly tailored.  The Fourth Circuit dismissed Chappell’s challenges and affirmed his conviction.

After noting that facial invalidation of legislation is disfavored, the Fourth Circuit addressed Chappell’s general facial challenge.  The court found that the “statute has a plainly legitimate sweep” because it not only serves the state’s public safety interests but also deters individuals from pretending to be police officers in order to evade state-imposed sanctions.  The court chided Chappell for failing to bring an “as-applied challenge to his conviction” and for instead “hypothesiz[ing] the rights of third parties.”  The court refused to invalidate the statute “just because Chapell can conceive of far-fetched applications involving innocent behavior.”  Overall, the court was concerned that Chappell used hypothetical scenarios to challenge the statute in order to distract the court’s attention from his own illegal conduct.

Next, the Fourth Circuit addressed Chappell’s challenge under the overbreadth doctrine.  The court cited the general rule that “an individual to whom a statute may constitutionally be applied may not challenge that statute on behalf of third parties.”  It then acknowledged a narrow exception to this rule under the First Amendment overbreadth doctrine which allows individuals to challenge overly broad statutes even though their own conduct is clearly unprotected.  However, the court found that Chappell’s challenge under this doctrine failed for several reasons.  First, Chappell “failed to show any ‘realistic danger’ that the … statute will significantly compromise anyone’s First Amendment rights … .”  Second, the court held that the statute does not compromise any recognized First Amendment protections but instead “prohibits a species of identify theft in which there is little or no communicative value.”  Finally, the court held that even if the overbreadth doctrine applied to Chappell’s challenge, his challenge would fail because he did not satisfy the two requirements for invalidating a law that restricts speech: that the realistic constitutional applications of the law be substantial in both an absolute sense and relative to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Chappell’s argument based on the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Alvarez which held the Stolen Valor Act to be “facially unconstitutional as a content-based restriction on speech.”  Contrary to Chappell’s arguments, the court held that Alvarez supports its conclusion that Virginia’s statute is not facially invalid under the First Amendment because the Alvarez court recognized “the general validity of laws prohibiting ‘the false representation that one is speaking as a Government official or on behalf of the Government.’”

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite