How Should We Handle Those Who File False Police Reports?

9:00am | People lie to police all the time. I think most officers would say it comes with the territory. I'm not saying that makes it all right, but if we prize our freedom from incriminating ourselves so highly that it comes in at #5 on the Constitutional hit parade, we can hardly feign surprise if a lot of the people saying "I didn't do it" did it indeed.

But actually calling the cops with a false story, bringing the police to you so as to deceive them, may be taking it to another level. And if providing a peace officer with false information is a criminal offense in general, going out of one's way to proffer lies ought to carry an additional/separate penalty. A serious one.

If you've followed local news of late, you know I'm thinking of Sonia Hernandez, who on Monday police say concocted a canard about finding a newborn at a nearby gas station, a fairy tale full of details such as what the child was wearing in a plastic bag that Hernandez looked into because she thought it contained cat food. She said her daughter — whom we now know to be the infant's birth mother, Paloma Espinoza — told Hernandez to leave the baby there, but that Hernandez just couldn't do that. (Such a hero.) She showed news crews where she made her "discovery"; she described how she cried when she saw the child was alive, how she kissed the little girl all the way home.

Long Beach police are said to be bringing charges against Hernandez and Espinoza, and that's good. But I'm afraid the worst possible punishment will come nowhere near fitting the crime.

Police have an extremely important job to do; and police departments — at least if we judge by Long Beach — are underfunded and understaffed to do that job. So the last thing they need is for some idiot to phone them up and involve them in hours of needless investigation just because the idiot's idiot daughter wants to deceive yet someone else.

"The charging section depends on the nature of the false report, and the penalty depends on the charging section," says City Prosecutor Doug Haubert. Without speaking to the facts of this case, he points to California Penal Code Sec. 148.5 as an example, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine for such an offense.

Let's leave Espinoza aside for the moment (who may/should have child-abandonment/-endangerment charges with which to contend) and focus on Hernandez and her cockamamie story. Presuming charges are filed against her, it's likely she'll strike a plea agreement, because to a large extent the criminal-justice system is geared to getting such deals done so as to avoid trials, which are costly and time-consuming.

If that's what happens, it's too bad, because I think we should settle for nothing less than the maximum possible sentence — which won't be harsh enough. To get any "justice" here, for starters we'd need to calculate the cost of every minute the police spend on this nonsense (the dispatcher, the officers at the gas station and the ones who went to the Hernandez's home, the Public Information Office, the secretaries filing the paperwork); then add to the total the cost of every drop of gasoline used to by police units rolling around on this wild gosling chase; then add the court costs. If we could figure out a way to calculate the value of the inconvenience to the gas station, the time spent by the media transmitting a false story, etc., I'd throw that in. The point is, Hernandez (and anyone else involved) ought to be liable for every second and penny wasted on this.

That's just the compensatory damages; I don't consider that punishment. For the truly punitive side of the ledger, I don't know, maybe a year in jail is good enough. She won't get it, of course — our prisons are overcrowded, so even more serious criminals end up doing less time than they might/should — but this is probably a case where jail time could be a deterrent to others. If people know that phoning up police with a baloney story meant serving a year in the slammer, I do believe we'd see a lot less of it.

Even if Hernandez gets her plea agreement, she will, at least for a few moments, wind up in front of a judge. And if she says anything other than "Yes, your Honor" and "Guilty," undoubtedly it will be that she is sorry for her actions. This will be another lie, of course; it's just what people say when they get caught and are asking for mercy.

There are plenty of occasions for mercy; this is not one of them. Throw the book at everyone involved. Maybe it will knock some sense into the next person thinking about going down a similar path.

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