Falsely Accused of a Crime

Sometimes, witnesses and law enforcement get it wrong, and someone gets falsely accused of a crime. Learn how to protect yourself if it's happened to you.

By , Attorney · New Mexico School of Law
Updated 9/19/2022

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 person committed a crime, and occasionally, someone will lie to the police and make false accusations.

Below are tips for what to do if falsely accused of committing a crime.

What to Do If Falsely Accused of a Crime

If you've been accused of or charged with a crime, consult a criminal defense attorney immediately. Even if you know you're innocent, you still need an attorney if you're facing criminal charges.

Why Getting an Attorney Early is Important

Besides advising you on what to do, an attorney can immediately begin communicating on your behalf with anyone trying to question you about the accusation—such as a police officer, the media, or the alleged victim or their family. This protection is crucial because anything you say to someone else can usually be used in court. So, if the case went to trial, anyone you spoke to about the allegations (even a friend) could get on the stand and repeat what you said (or what they think you said)—and can be forced to do so with a subpoena.

Most people think that no harm can come from discussing the allegations if they have nothing to hide. But seemingly innocent statements can sometimes backfire. Suppose you say you left the bar at 11 on the night in question but remembered it differently later and told someone else you left at 10. Even if it's just a mistake, the prosecutor can use the inconsistency to suggest you're not believable or are even lying.

That's why it's important not to discuss the accusations with anyone but your lawyer unless your lawyer tells you otherwise.

On that note, once you've retained a lawyer, it's important to do whatever they tell you to.

Things Your Attorney Might Tell You to Do

Depending on the facts of your situation, an attorney might tell you to:

  • Gather evidence such as physical items, documents, or records that relate to the case such as letters, emails, financial or legal records, phone and GPS records, and any records or receipts that might show where you were at the time of an incident (like a grocery receipt)
  • 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
  • Avoid all contact with the victim, their family, and others acting on their behalf
  • Refuse to speak with law enforcement (the police, FBI, district attorney, U.S. Attorney, and so on) or other investigators (such as child protective services) without an attorney present
  • Decline requests for voluntary testing (such as DNA and gun residue tests), and give no evidence to law enforcement without first consulting with your lawyer (note that in many states, you might be legally required to provide DNA testing after an arrest on a felony).

How to Prove Your Innocence When Falsely Accused of a Crime

Remember, it's the prosecution's job to prove guilt—a defendant doesn't have to prove their innocence.

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 your attorney first. The last thing you want to do is make things worse.

Your attorney can help no matter what stage of the accusations you find yourself in.

When No Charges Are Filed

If someone has wrongly accused you of committing a crime but you haven't been charged yet, an attorney can give you advice that's specific to the alleged crime and can be ready and waiting in the event that you're formally charged or arrested.

In the meantime, it might be tempting to try to resolve it on your own, but think twice before taking any action. Suppose someone you know—such as a neighbor, friend, or business colleague—is making accusations against you. Your first thought might be to try to talk with the person to sort it out because you know each other and it's all just a big misunderstanding. But 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. It's best to talk to an attorney first if you really believe that communicating with the accuser or alleged victim could resolve the matter.

After Charges Are Filed

If you're formally charged with a crime, you and your attorney will need to evaluate your options, investigate the case, and possibly prepare for trial. At various stages of the criminal legal process, there could be an opportunity to establish innocence (or just get the case over with).

Investigation and Discovery. After someone is charged, the prosecution and the defense usually spend a period of time investigating and preparing the case to determine whether it should go to trial or whether a plea bargain is appropriate and agreeable to both sides.

Through the "discovery" process, the defense is entitled to review all the prosecution's evidence and must have an opportunity to interview prosecution witnesses before trial (whether they agree to an interview is another matter). Also, the law requires that the prosecution disclose any information that could show that the defendant is not guilty. On the flip side, the defense usually must also disclose witnesses and evidence they intend to present at trial. In other words, both sides must show all their cards, and neither side is allowed to "hide the ball." If during this phase, the defense uncovers evidence that proves innocence, it might change the prosecutor's view of the case. Though not entirely common, prosecutors occasionally dismiss charges when the defense provides them evidence that undercuts their whole case.

Plea offers. If you've been falsely accused, it can be difficult (and even insulting) to even consider a plea offer, but it's best to consider all options when facing criminal charges that could lead to a conviction. Your attorney can evaluate whether the prosecution can likely prove all the elements of the crime, so you can make an informed decision about whether to go to trial.

Defense strategy at trial. If the case goes to trial, a good defense lawyer will select one or more strategies to fight for the defendant. Depending on the facts of the case, strategies might involve presenting evidence that establishes an alibi or other evidence of innocence. Or, there might be evidence that shows a prosecution witness isn't credible because they're mistaken or lying. In some cases, expert testimony might help to show that a crime didn't occur (such as a homicide case where the victim's head injuries resulted from a fall, not an assault). The defense might consider presenting character witnesses to show that the defendant is a law-abiding person. Or the defendant, after careful consultation with his or her lawyer, might take the stand. Finally, the strategy might just be to poke holes in the prosecution's case, to create a reasonable doubt.

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 discredit 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 know they don't have credible evidence to prove the case.)

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