One of the hallmarks of the U.S. legal system is that every citizen can have their day in court. One of the drawbacks of this feature of the U.S. legal system is that anyone can bring anyone to court. Whether it is due to the meritless claim of an insidious individual or the mistaken claim of someone seeking justice, the unfortunate reality is that many people become the victims of false accusations. False accusations can be incredibly serious due to the potential legal and reputational harms they can inflict on both the accuser and the accused. Here is what you need to know about defending against false accusations.
Why Do People Make False Accusations?
Although current politics tend to focus on false accusations in the context of rape or other sexual assault, a false accusation can relate to any crime or tort (essentially, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal wrong). Consider the following, non-exhaustive list of reasons why someone might make a false accusation:
- Mistaken identity;
- Misconduct of an official; or
- Misleading evidence.
Notice that this list covers a wide range of reasons why someone might make a false accusation, some of which are rooted in mistakes and others of which are rooted in malice. For example, eyewitness testimony is considered the weakest form of evidence, and it contributes to an estimated 69% of wrongful convictions. Yet, the justice system continues to accept– and often rely upon- eyewitness testimony, leading to cases of mistaken identity founded on the basis of misrecollection.
On the other hand, false accusations can also be malicious. For example, a disgruntled ex-boyfriend might want to make his ex’s life difficult through an unfounded allegation, or a police officer might try to cover up their use of excessive force by claiming they feared for their life.
What Are The Consequences For Falsely Accusing Someone?
False accusations can have gravely serious consequences on the lives of the accusers and the accused. Therefore, it is critical to seek proper representation when defending against false accusations, just as it may be if making accusations that turn out to be false. The remainder of this section will discuss the consequences that the accuser and the accused can face as a result of false accusations.
Consequences for the False Accuser
The key difference between mistakenly false accusations and maliciously false accusations, as discussed above, is knowledge. In California, it is illegal to falsely accuse someone of a crime if the accuser knows that the accusation is false. Making a false accusation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and fines.
Consequences for the Falsely Accused
The State of California takes false accusations very seriously due to the impact that a false accusation can have on the falsely accused. A false accusation could cost the accused their job, visitation rights, reputation, and/or freedom. In fact, a false accusation could mar their criminal record and follow them throughout the rest of their lives.
Defending Against False Accusations
The first step in responding to a false accusation should be to seek legal representation. The consequences are too severe and the situation can be too complex to warrant anything less than the expert hand of a lawyer. A lawyer can assist with liaising with prosecutors, handling hostile witnesses, and, if necessary, negotiating a plea deal in order to reduce the risk of harsher punishments. They can also help build your case via a pre-trial investigation that identifies favorable witnesses, medical evaluations, DNA evidence, and other facts. Perhaps most importantly, a lawyer may help the falsely accused individual impeach their accuser. Impeaching the accuser means undermining their credibility, typically through cross-examination or other character witnesses at trial. Impeaching the accuser can be a critical element of a defense against false accusations because it attacks the credibility of the source of those accusations– if the accuser lacks credibility, then their allegations can appear meritless.
Defenses When Accused of Making False Accusations
As discussed previously, making a false accusation is a misdemeanor under California law. However, simply making a false accusation is not necessarily illegal. It is illegal to make a false accusation knowingly. Therefore, where someone is accused of making a false accusation, a common defense is to argue that they made the false accusation in good faith. In this context, good faith means that the accuser genuinely believed that the accusation was correct, to the best of their knowledge.
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