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West Virginia Supreme Court: Defendant Who Provided False Information to Detective Who Failed to Identify Himself as Police Officer Has No Duty to Cure False Statement Upon Learning Detective Is a Police Officer

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled that a person who provided false information to a detective who failed to identify himself as a police officer had no duty under City of Martinsburg Municipal Code § 509.05 (“§ 509.05”) to cure the prior false statement upon learning the detective is a police officer.

In January 2019, Detective Jonathan Smith investigated the report of a man fraudulently using a credit card to purchase food from a restaurant in Martinsville, West Virginia. Smith, wearing jeans and a tee-shirt, drove an unmarked car to the address where the food was delivered. A woman identifying herself as Danielle Shaffer answered the door. Smith asked to speak to the male suspect. Shaffer stated she did not know the man and stated she had moved into the apartment in October of 2018, after the alleged food delivery under investigation.

According to Smith, he then identified himself as a police officer and asked Shaffer for her landlord’s name and address. Shaffer refused to provide it, and Smith left the residence.

Smith continued to investigate the case and learned that the Shaffer’s true name was Rachel Dunbar. Smith charged Dunbar with providing false information in violation of § 509.05.

Dunbar was convicted in Martinsburg Municipal Court and appealed to Berkeley County Circuit Court where she requested a bench trial. In her testimony, she admitted to supplying a false name but denied Smith had identified himself as an officer. He was not in a uniform, there wasn’t any police vehicle outside of her home, and she “thought [Smith] was just a regular guy, maybe associated with something of the previous people who lived there [of whom the landlord had warned her].” She testified that she did not learn that Smith was a police officer until she was arrested a few days after Smith had left her apartment.

The circuit court concluded “Detective Smith informed [Dunbar] that he was a law enforcement officer” and that “[a]fter being informed that Detective Smith was a law enforcement officer investigating criminal activity, [Dunbar] did not provide Detective Smith with her real name” and she “made no attempt to cure her prior false statement when she had opportunity to do so.” The circuit court concluded that Dunbar “knowingly provided false or misleading information to Detective Smith, a member of the City of Martinsburg Police Department, and therefore was in violation of § 509.05, City of Martinsburg Municipal Code.” Dunbar was fined $252, and she appealed.

The Court observed that “[t]he rules for construing statutes also apply to the interpretation of municipal ordinances.” Cogan v. City of Wheeling, 274 S.E.2d 516 (W. Va. 1981). Municipal ordinances that are clear and unambiguous will be applied rather than construed. State v. Epperly, 65 S.E.2d 488 (W. Va. 1951). The relevant municipal code in the instant case provides that “[n]o person shall, at any time intercept, molest, or interfere with any officer or member of the Martinsburg Police Department, while on duty, or knowingly give false or misleading information to a member of the department.” § 509.05. The Court explained: “Applying the rules above to the municipal ordinance at issue, we find nothing in the plain language of section 509.05 specifically requiring that an individual who gives false or misleading information to someone who the individual has no knowledge is a law enforcement officer has an obligation to later correct the false or misleading information if the individual subsequently is informed of the law enforcement officer’s official position. Accordingly, this Court will not presume that the City of Martinsburg intended such an outcome.”

The Court observed that the circuit court had clearly found that at the time Dunbar gave a false name she had no knowledge that Smith was a law enforcement officer. The Court concluded that absent that knowledge, Dunbar did not “knowingly” give false information to a law enforcement officer.

In State v. Srnsky, 582 S.E.2d 859 (W. Va. 2003), the defendant had been found guilty of obstructing an officer in violation of West Virginia Code § 61-5-17 for refusing to give his name to a police officer. The Srnsky Court explained that, after reviewing West Virginia caselaw as well as that of other states, such refusal, standing alone, does not constitute the offense of obstruction under the obstruction statute, but the charge could “be substantiated when a citizen does not supply identification when required to do so by express statutory direction or when the refusal occurs after a law enforcement officer has communicated the reason why the citizen’s name is being sought in relation to the officer’s official duties.” Srnsky.

The Court stated that either the statute at issue must expressly direct the citizen to give his name or the refusal has to occur after the citizen was informed of the official purpose for providing their name to the requesting officer. In the instant case, Dunbar did not know Smith was a police officer when she gave the false name, and she did not know the purpose of his inquiry. Thus, the Court held that Dunbar didn’t knowingly provide misleading information to Smith “when she made no attempt to cure her prior false statement upon learning that Detective Smith was a law enforcement officer.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed Dunbar’s conviction and remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: State v. Dunbar, 868 S.E.2d 437 (W. Va. 2022). 

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State v. Dunbar

 

 

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