Being wrongly accused of a crime is a terrible thing to happen to anyone. It can be even worse when the accusation is for a crime seen as particularly heinous in the eyes of the public–as domestic violence rightfully is. You feel trapped. You know you are innocent, but so many people feel inclined to believe your accuser. What do you do? Is there any recourse? And, even if you avoid a conviction, are there any repercussions for the person who put you through this nightmare? Are there penalties for a false accusation in Tennessee?
The short answer is yes, there are. A person who knowingly makes a false accusation to the police can be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor under Tennessee law. They can face up to a year in prison and a fine of $2,500. If the false accusation extends into the courts and is told under oath, it becomes perjury; at which point, depending on the circumstances of the testimony and the gravity of the crime, could lead to a jail sentence up to 12 years.
So, yes, there are consequences for lying to law enforcement. The real challenge is proving false allegations of domestic violence, which isn’t easy when the whole process begins with you under the microscope of the police.
What to Do When Falsely Accused of Domestic Violence
If the police come to your home or office to arrest you for a domestic violence crime you did not commit, it’s important to stay calm. Don’t resist arrest. Go with the officers but know that going peacefully doesn’t mean that you’ve given up your constitutional rights.
You have the right to an attorney, and you have the right to remain silent. Invoke both immediately. Get a defense lawyer into the police station to be with you during interrogation. If you ask for a lawyer and are not allowed to call one, anything you say will be inadmissible in court. But if you don’t ask, then the interrogation can be admitted as evidence.
The fact you are innocent doesn’t mean you have nothing to be concerned about during an interrogation. Maybe you and the accuser had a strained relationship. That doesn’t make you guilty of domestic violence but saying too much about it won’t help your case. It’s a myth that the only people who invoke their right to silence are the guilty. Innocent people who don’t want their words misconstrued are wise to invoke the right of silence.
If you are released on bail, stay away from the person who made the accusation. Don’t try and work things out. Don’t try to clear up any misunderstandings. At least not by yourself. The lawyers can handle that. If you directly contact your accuser, without attorneys or witnesses present, more accusations could result. It could make you look guiltier in the eyes of the law.
There’s no upside to direct contact with your accuser. Anything positive that might have come is even more likely to come by working through intermediaries (lawyers, police officers, etc.). Anything negative that happens can be easily blown out of proportion with no witnesses to refute it.
This presumes there is no restraining order in place against you. If there is an order previously in place, it’s more important than ever that you abide by it. Violating legal orders isn’t the best way to establish innocence.
Building Your Case
Now it’s time to gather evidence. Do you have an alibi for the crime you are accused of? If you are charged with assault, that would have taken place at a specific date and time. Work to remember exactly what you were doing at the time and then think of how to corroborate it.
If you were with people, they can testify on your behalf. If you were in a public place, there may be surveillance footage. Your defense attorney can be of valuable assistance, both in helping you think of how to verify your alibi, and then doing the legwork necessary to follow up.
Charges of sexual assault can be tougher. These often come down to he-said/she-said situations. You might not be convicted, but you may never be able to prove a false accusation either. The one exception is if circumstances are such that DNA testing would clearly prove your innocence.
The Burden of Proof
It’s important to note that you and your lawyer are doing two things that, while working toward the same goal, have two different standards of proof.
First and foremost, you are trying to secure your acquittal on the domestic violence charge. The burden of proof works in your favor here. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of the crime. If there’s any gray area, the jury is obliged to set you free. In fact, if the evidence against you is not strong enough, the prosecution may decline to file charges at all.
This is very different from proving that you were falsely accused. It’s one thing for a District Attorney or a jury to be unconvinced of your guilt. It’s much harder to establish that not only are you “not guilty,” but that you can actually prove your innocence.
Proving a negative–that you didn’t do something–is no easy task. This is where the evidence-gathering that you do on behalf of your defense must be done with an eye toward eventually going onto offense. The charge of false accusation will be taken up separately and now it’s you who will face the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden, while your previous accuser gets the legal benefits that come with being a defendant.
The good news for you is that you have multiple options. Bringing criminal charges for making a false accusation is one, but so is filing a lawsuit for libel or slander. These charges will not be adjudicated in criminal court, but in a civil one. Your accuser will not face jail time, but you may win a financial settlement. And the burden of proof is the lower threshold of more likely than not, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.
Put simply, in civil court, the jury must be 51 percent convinced the defendant is guilty. In criminal court, they must be close to 100 percent convinced. That’s why, depending on the evidence you have available, choosing a civil remedy to a false accusation may be more practical.
Casey, Simmons & Bryant, PLLC takes pride in helping people when they’re down. We also take pride in our knowledge of the law and in our tenacity in fighting on behalf of our clients. Those are things you need on your side when you are falsely accused, be it of domestic violence or any other crime. Call us at (731) 256-0023 or contact us online and get the help you need today.