Falsely Accused of a Crime

Being falsely accused of a crime can be damaging even if it's not proven. Learn how to protect yourself.

By , Contributing Author

The last thing anyone wants to face is being wrongly accused of a crime, but unfortunately, it can happen. A witness or victim can identify the wrong person, circumstances can lead police to think that an innocent suspect committed a crime, or someone might lie to police and claim that an innocent person committed a crime. Below are tips for what to do or not do if falsely accused of committing a crime.

What to Do If Falsely Accused of a Crime

If you've been falsely accused or charged with a crime, hire an attorney as soon as possible. You should also start gathering available evidence and get organized. To the extent you can, do the following.

  • Do gather any physical evidence relating to the incident or events that are available to you, such as clothing, photos, videos, and other objects.
  • Do gather any documents or records that could relate to the case, such as letters, emails, financial or legal records, phone and GPS records, computer records, and any records or receipts that might show where you were at the time of an incident (like a grocery receipt).
  • Do make a list of any evidence from the crime scene (objects, documents, blood, bullet casings) that you know exists but were not able to take from the scene.
  • Do make a list of possible witnesses—any person you think has information about the incident, the accusations, or the alleged victim—and their contact information if available.

Be prepared to share all of this information and material with an attorney.

What Not to Do If Falsely Accused of a Crime

If you are falsely accused or charged with a crime, don't do any of the following.

  • Don't destroy evidence, as this may cast you in an even more suspicious light and can lead to more criminal charges.
  • Don't try to talk to the victim about the case or have any contact with the victim or witnesses.
  • Don't talk to law enforcement or other investigators without an attorney present.
  • Don't voluntarily submit to any testing (such as DNA tests) or give any evidence to law enforcement without consulting with a lawyer first—even if you believe the evidence will show you are not a guilty party.

How to Prove Your Innocence When Falsely Accused of a Crime

While your first inclination might be to clear your name by talking to others and sleuthing around, it's not always the best idea. Talk to an attorney first. The last thing you want to do is make things worse, so get advice from an attorney. Also remember it's the prosecution's job to prove guilt—not the other way around. A defendant does not have to prove their innocence.

No Charges Filed

If someone has wrongly accused you of committing a crime but you haven't been charged, it's still a good idea to talk with an attorney about the situation and get more advice than the basic suggestions above about what to do and not do.

Specific allegations. The attorney can give you advice that might be specific to the alleged crime and can be ready and waiting in the event that you are formally charged or arrested. Allegations of sex crimes and child abuse can be incredibly damaging even if no charges end up being formally filed.

Don't go it alone. Now suppose someone you know—such as a neighbor, a friend, or a business colleague—is making accusations against you. Your first thought might be to try to talk with the person and "sort things out," because you know each other and it's all just a big misunderstanding, right? Don't. It's not usually a good idea. A conversation like this could complicate matters even more between you and the accuser or alleged victim. You also could be accused of attempting to intimidate a witness. Talk to an attorney if you really believe that communicating with the accuser or alleged victim could resolve the matter, but don't take matters into your own hands.

Charges Filed

If formally charged with a crime you did not commit, you and your attorney will need to evaluate your options, investigate the case, and possibly prepare for trial.

Discovery. After a defendant is formally charged, the prosecution and the defense usually spend a period of time investigating and preparing the case to determine whether a plea is appropriate and agreeable to all parties, or whether the case will go to trial. The defense is entitled to review all the prosecution's evidence and to interview all witnesses before trial, whether the evidence or witness is helpful to the prosecution or the defense. The law requires that the prosecution disclose any information that may show that the defendant is not guilty. The defense also must disclose witnesses and evidence intended to be presented at trial. In other words, both sides must show all their cards and neither side is permitted to "hide the ball."

Prosecution's burden. At trial, the jury is instructed to review the evidence presented and determine whether the prosecution proved the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If a reasonable person would have a doubt as to whether the defendant is guilty, the jury must find the defendant not guilty. By reviewing all the evidence and witness testimony, the defendant and the defense attorney can evaluate whether it's likely that the prosecution can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That information can be very helpful in considering any plea offers.

Plea offers. If you have been falsely accused, it can be difficult (and even insulting) to even consider a plea offer, but it is best to consider all options when facing criminal charges that could lead to a conviction and a criminal record. Your attorney can help you evaluate whether the prosecution can prove that you committed any crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes people end up involved in complicated situations in which no felonies were committed but a minor criminal infraction was. A plea deal in which the defendant pleads guilty to a misdemeanor might be appropriate in this situation.

Defense strategy at trial. If a falsely accused defendant must go to trial, all the evidence listed above (physical evidence, documents, computer records, video recordings) that might show the defendant's innocence is very important. Evidence that shows a witness is not credible (that the witness is or might be lying) also is important. If the defense can show that a prosecution witness is not credible, this may create reasonable doubt. The defendant will also get to present a defense by having witnesses testify and introducing evidence. The defendant and the attorney can decide together what evidence will be useful to present as part of the defense.

Is It a Crime to Make False Accusations Against Someone?

It can be. Many states make it a crime to falsely report a crime to police when the accuser knows the report is false and intends for police to rely on the information. Depending on state law, this conduct can be grounds for misdemeanor or felony penalties. If the accuser takes it a step further and lies under oath, they could face perjury charges (which are often felonies).

When the situation involves mistaken identity or genuine mistakes, a person who makes such claims and believes them to be true hasn't committed a crime. In these situations, it's the defense attorney's job to poke holes in the prosecutor's case and convince the jury that the witness or person's account isn't credible. (The prosecution also shouldn't file charges if they don't have credible evidence to prove the case.)

How to Protect Yourself After False Accusations

Being falsely accused or charged with a crime obviously is extremely stressful, especially if events happen suddenly. If you find yourself in such a position, just doing these two things might make a difference in your case: consult a criminal defense attorney before talking with anyone and preserve any evidence in your possession.

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