Legal Recourse When Falsely Accused of a Crime

What legal options do you have after having been accused, prosecuted, then exonerated for a crime you did not commit?

There are several legal claims that come into play when someone is falsely accused or improperly prosecuted for a crime. The most common are civil claims based on either defamation of character, or malicious prosecution and/or false imprisonment.

On this page we’ll cover both scenarios as questions and answers to explain the legal concepts and requirements behind these types of claims.

Defamation or Slander

Question

Recently, I was falsely accused of rape by a girl that I knew from my college class. She later admitted that her accusation was false and dropped all the charges. Meanwhile, I lost my work study job at the campus library after everyone heard the accusations and I’ve been having a hard time paying for my tuition and expenses without a job. I read about defamation of character lawsuits. Is defamation for falsely accusing of rape something I could sue her for?

Answer

There are the two main types of defamation cases: libel and slander. Both involve harmful, false statements that cause damage someone’s reputation, but libel requires that the statement be in writing or somehow “published.” With slander, all that is required is that the defamatory statement be spoken to a third party (someone other than you).

In many cases, damages (the harm you suffered) are handled differently depending on whether the statement at issue is considered libel or slander. From your question, it isn’t clear whether the accusations were spoken or made in writing.  But in your case, it may not matter much, because under defamation laws in most states, falsely accusing someone of having committed a crime is considered “defamatory per se” or “actionable per se.” That means harm is taken as a given in the eyes of the law, and harm to your reputation is presumed.

Depending on your state’s laws, you may only need to show that the young woman made the statements, and that the statements were false. This isn’t usually all that easy, but it sounds like you may have some type of record of her declaring the falsity of the accusations.

Again, depending on your state’s laws, the young woman might be liable for any resulting actual damages stemming from the statements -- money you lost as a result of losing your job, damage to your ability to secure new work, and harm to your reputation because of the false accusations of your having committed a serious crime. You may also be entitled to compensation for things like embarrassment, mental anguish, and humiliation. It might be worth it to discuss your options with an attorney.

Malicious Prosecution and/or False Imprisonment

Question

I was wrongfully accused of battery against my ex-girlfriend. She made several false accusations of me and the bogus evidence she had was somehow able to get me convicted. Months later, she has had a change of heart and new evidence has surfaced which is clearing my name. As a result of this ordeal, I experienced a great deal of emotional trauma. What are my legal rights?

Answer

You might be able to sue your ex-girlfriend in civil court for the intentional tort of malicious prosecution, but you will face some challenges in proving your case.

Malicious prosecution lets you hold someone else civilly liable (meaning you can get compensation in the form of financial damages) when they initiate (or cause to be initiated) a criminal or civil case against you, while knowing that the allegations are not true (or without any reasonable grounds to believe they are true), and with a wrongful purpose. Finally, you also must receive a judgment or ruling in your favor in the case, in spite of all those things.

That’s a lot to prove, but it can be done, especially if the person who made the original allegations is now recanting their story. But the trick will be to show that there was an improper motive behind the initiation of the original proceedings (and not merely a lack of sound evidence.) You probably don’t have much in the way of recourse against the county prosecutor who tried and convicted you, since district attorneys and other officials are typically entitled to immunity even when someone winds up being proven innocent after having been convicted of a crime. So a civil lawsuit for malicious prosecution or false imprisonment would likely fail against the prosecuting attorney and/or the local municipality.

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