Impersonating a Police Officer in California
Penal Code 538d PC

Impersonating a police or other law enforcement officer is a misdemeanor under California Penal Code 538d PC.1

In contrast to the California crime of false impersonation under Penal Code 529 PC, you can be charged with impersonating a police officer even if no one was harmed by your actions and you derived no benefit from them.2

But according to Santa Ana criminal defense attorney Elisa Guadan3:

“Note that this does not mean that you can be arrested and charged with police impersonation if you dress up as an officer for Halloween, or for a play, or as a joke. California law requires that you intend to fraudulently cause another person to believe that you are an officer.”

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You can be charged with impersonating a police officer for wearing a police uniform under certain circumstances.
The legal definition of impersonating an officer

The following behaviors all fit the legal definition of impersonating a peace officer under PC 538d:

  1. Willfully 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 fraudulently inducing the belief that you are a peace officer;
  2. Willfully wearing, exhibiting or using the badge of a peace officer or a fake peace officer's badge, with the intent of fraudulently impersonating a peace officer or fraudulently inducing the belief that you are a peace officer; and
  3. Willfully making, selling, loaning, giving or transferring to someone else any badge, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card or writing, which purports or appears to be authorized for use by peace officers.4

Example: Teo is concerned about a recent increase in petty crime such as vandalism in his neighborhood. He borrows a police uniform from a cousin of his who is a retired police officer.

In the early evenings, Teo strolls through his neighborhood in the police uniform. His intent is that potential criminals will think he really is a police officer and will think twice about engaging in criminal activity.

Teo is guilty of Penal Code 538d impersonating a law enforcement officer for willfully wearing a police uniform with the intent to make others believe he is a police officer.

Example: Randy is an expert counterfeiter. He makes himself a very convincing fake police badge.

When he is driving and comes across a rude or unsafe driver, Randy will sometimes pull up next to the driver and flash the fake badge, hoping to intimidate him/her.

Randy is guilty of impersonating a police officer both for making the fake badge and for displaying it with intent to impersonate a real officer. (He may also be guilty of Penal Code 472 PC forgery of a public seal.)

In addition, California Penal Code 538d also requires vendors of law enforcement uniforms to verify that any person who purchases a uniform is a law enforcement employee. A uniform vendor who fails to do so is also guilty of a crime under this law.5

Exception for film or theater props
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Penal Code 538d PC has an exception for film and theater props.

You are not guilty of impersonating a peace officer for using or selling/transferring a police uniform if both of the following are true:

  1. The uniform is to be used solely as a prop for a movie, television or video production or theatrical event; and
  2. Prior written permission has been obtained from the identified law enforcement agency.6

Example: Hannah runs a uniform store that sells uniforms to Burbank Police Department officers.

Scott comes into Hannah's store to buy a Burbank PD uniform. He explains to her that he is playing the part of a police officer in a play put on by a local theater company and shows her a letter from the Burbank PD authorizing the company to use their uniforms.

Hannah will not be guilty of PC 538d if she sells Scott a uniform. Scott will not be guilty of impersonating a peace officer if he wears the uniform for the play and rehearsals.

Penalties for impersonation of a peace officer

Impersonating a law enforcement officer is a misdemeanor in California law.7

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Penalties for impersonating a peace officer are slightly steeper if you do so using a badge.

If you violate this law by using a uniform, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card or writing of a peace officer, the potential penalties are:

However, if you violate this law using a badge (either real or counterfeit), then the potential penalties increase. You may then face up to one (1) year in county jail, and/or a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000).9

In addition, defendants who make, sell, loan, give or transfer false items that would identify the bearer as a peace officer are punishable with up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000)—or up to fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) if they made or sold a counterfeit badge.10

Finally, uniform vendors who fail to verify that someone is a law enforcement officer before selling them a uniform are only punishable by a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).11

Legal defenses against PC 538d charges

One of the most helpful common legal defenses to charges of impersonating a police officer is that you did not intend to fraudulently impersonate a police officer or cause others to believe you were an officer.

Criminal intent can be difficult to prove. There are various reasons why you may have had or used a peace officer's uniform or badge—as a joke, or as a collector's item. You may have never imagined that anyone would actually assume that you were a peace officer.

Our California criminal defense attorneys can investigate the facts of your case and figure out the best strategy for getting California Penal Code 538d charges reduced or dismissed.

Call us for help…
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For questions about the crime of Penal Code 538d PC impersonating a peace officer, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

For more information on Nevada “impersonation of a public officer” laws, please see our page on Nevada “impersonation of a public officer” laws.

Legal References:


1 Penal Code 538d PC – Impersonating a peace officer; wearing uniform, insignia, badge, etc.; identification issued to honorably retired peace officers; vendors verifying persons purchasing uniforms. (“(a) Any person other than one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, who willfully wears, exhibits, or uses 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, is guilty of a misdemeanor. (b)(1) Any person, other than the one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, who willfully wears, exhibits, or uses the badge 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, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, by a fine not to exceed two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine. (2) Any person who willfully wears or uses any badge that falsely purports to be authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, or which so resembles the authorized badge of a peace officer as would deceive any ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, for the purpose of fraudulently impersonating a peace officer, or of fraudulently inducing the belief that he or she is a peace officer, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, by a fine not to exceed two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine. (c)(1) Except as provided in subdivision (d), any person who willfully wears, exhibits, or uses, or who willfully makes, sells, loans, gives, or transfers to another, any badge, insignia, emblem, device, or any label, certificate, card, or writing, which falsely purports to be authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, or which so resembles the authorized badge, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing of a peace officer as would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed six months, by a fine not to exceed two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine, except that any person who makes or sells any badge under the circumstances described in this subdivision is subject to a fine not to exceed fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000). (2) A local law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction that files charges against a person for a violation of paragraph (1) shall seize the badge, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing described in paragraph (1). (d)(1) The head of an agency that employs peace officers, as defined in Sections 830.1 and 830.2, is authorized to issue identification in the form of a badge, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing that clearly states that the person has honorably retired following service as a peace officer from that agency. The identification authorized pursuant to this subdivision is separate and distinct from the identification authorized by Article 2 (commencing with Section 25450) of Chapter 2 of Division 5 of Title 4 of Part 6. (2) If the head of an agency issues a badge to an honorably retired peace officer that is not affixed to a plaque or other memento commemorating the retiree's service for the agency, the words “Honorably Retired” shall be clearly visible above, underneath, or on the badge itself. (3) The head of an agency that employs peace officers as defined in Sections 830.1 and 830.2 is authorized to revoke identification granted pursuant to this subdivision in the event of misuse or abuse. (4) For the purposes of this subdivision, the term “honorably retired” does not include an officer who has agreed to a service retirement in lieu of termination. (e)(1) Vendors of law enforcement uniforms shall verify that a person purchasing a uniform identifying a law enforcement agency is an employee of the agency identified on the uniform. Presentation and examination of a valid identification card with a picture of the person purchasing the uniform and identification, on the letterhead of the law enforcement agency, of the person buying the uniform as an employee of the agency identified on the uniform shall be sufficient verification. (2) Any uniform vendor who sells a uniform identifying a law enforcement agency, without verifying that the purchaser is an employee of the agency, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000). (3) This subdivision shall not apply if the uniform is to be used solely as a prop for a motion picture, television, video production, or a theatrical event, and prior written permission has been obtained from the identified law enforcement agency.”)

2 Compare same with Penal Code 529 PC – California's false impersonation law.

3 Santa Ana criminal defense attorney Elisa Guadan has spent her entire career defending clients accused of a wide range of California crimes, from impersonating a police officer to high-stakes felony DUIs.

4 Penal Code 538d PC – Impersonating a peace officer; wearing uniform, insignia, badge, etc.; identification issued to honorably retired peace officers; vendors verifying persons purchasing uniforms, endnote 1 above.

5 Same.

6 Same.

7 Same.

8 Same.

See also Penal Code 19 PC. (“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor [such as impersonating a police officer] is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”)

9 Penal Code 538d PC – Impersonating a peace officer; wearing uniform, insignia, badge, etc.; identification issued to honorably retired peace officers; vendors verifying persons purchasing uniforms, endnote 1 above.

10 Same.

11 Same.

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