You used to get along really well with your next-door neighbor, but the relationship has quickly soured. His raucous, all-night party (which kept your infant awake until dawn) was the final straw, prompting you to call the police. But since they didn't break up the party or even knock on his door, you've decided to get your revenge by filing a police report claiming your neighbor stole your bike (which, in reality, you had lent him a couple of weeks ago).
But soon after the police show up at your neighbor's house, they're knocking on your front door. Turns out, your neighbor showed them a text message exchange in which you've agreed to lend him your bike. Now you're the one facing criminal charges for filing a false police report.
This is an example of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment and is in fact considered a crime against justice itself. Legal specifics vary by jurisdiction, but the following information provides a general overview of the crime.
Filing a False Police Report: Elements of the Crime
If you file a police report that turns out to be inaccurate or even completely false, it doesn't necessarily mean a crime has been committed. A person's memory may be unreliable, or they may have relied on false information when filing the report. But the bottom line is that the individual must have known the report was false when filing it in order to be charged with a crime. Thus, the elements of the crime are as follows:
Depending on the jurisdiction and the details of the case, the prosecutor also may be required to prove that the defendant made the false statement with the intent to interfere with the criminal justice system. For instance, someone in a criminal gang files a false police report against the member of a rival gang in order to "take the heat off" one of their own.
Charges and Penalties
Most jurisdictions (California Penal Code § 148.5, for example) charge an individual who knowingly files a false police report with a misdemeanor. Under California law a conviction can land you in county jail for up to six months, in addition to fines, possible probation, counseling, and/or community service. But judges have some discretion with sentencing and will likely consider such factors as the defendant's criminal history, motive for making the false report, and the consequences of the report (Was an innocent person taken into custody as a result?).
Also, the false report may be linked to other criminal activity, such as the intent to obstruct justice (hinder an investigation) or the commission of insurance fraud (falsely claiming something was stolen or damaged in order to collect on a claim). Filing a false report of terrorism (including reports of bomb threats) is charged as a serious felony under most state laws. Michigan law, for example, imposes a prison sentence of up to 20 years for such false reports. Federal code also addresses this (18 U.S.C. § 35, but in a more general manner).
Civil Liability for False Police Reports
If you file a false police report, there's a very good chance that you could be held liable for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or other damages directly resulting from your actions. Using the example of the false stolen bike report, what if your neighbor's reputation was damaged after being visited by the police? Perhaps he lost his job after word got out that he had allegedly stolen something? Also, it's reasonable to expect such an experience to cause profound stress (i.e., "emotional distress").
Some jurisdictions don't require proof of such damages and will allow defamation per se claims to be filed by someone who was the target of a false police statement.
Charged With Filing a False Police Report? Get Legal Help
So perhaps you didn't have all of your facts straight when you filed that police report, but you had meant well. Or perhaps you just made a huge mistake when you decided to retaliate against your neighbor. Either way, you have the right to a defense attorney. Reach out to a local criminal defense attorney today and find out about your rights and options.