Fri 09 Sep, 2022 Criminal Defense

How to Handle False Accusations of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence accusations are quite common in the criminal justice system. For obvious and legitimate reasons, our society doesn’t tolerate domestic violence. And because of that, people accused of domestic violence face very serious penalties.

However, many people facing domestic violence charges have been falsely accused. In fact, domestic violence charges are, by far, the most common kind of charge in criminal court where the defendant has been wrongfully accused.

The reason for that is simple. Unlike most other crimes, domestic violence involves alleged victims who can have significant emotional ties to the defendant, and many alleged victims have a bias against the defendant and a motive to lie.

For instance, with another sort of crime, say a bar-fight assault or pickpocket theft, the victim has no personal emotional attachment to the defendant. Consequently, that victim doesn’t readily have some existing bias or motive to lie about the defendant. Of course, sometimes the alleged victim of a non-domestic violence case does in fact have a motive to lie but generally speaking when a stranger is the victim of a crime, he or she doesn’t have any reason to falsely accuse a person of a crime or exaggerate what happened.

On the other hand, with domestic violence charges, the deep level of emotional entanglement the alleged victim has with the defendant can easily cause the alleged victim to make up claims or exaggerate what happened. For instance, if an alleged victim and the defendant have been arguing for years and each person constantly gets under the other’s skin, or the alleged victim discovers that the defendant had an affair, or the defendant breaks up with the alleged victim and kicks the alleged victim out of their home, the alleged victim could be so emotionally distraught that, in the moment, they easily make up allegations or completely exaggerate what happened. 

It’s very common for a complainant to say that the defendant pushed them, hit them, or the defendant started the fight, etc., when it’s absolutely not true. I say this with so much confidence not because I see domestic violence cases where there is flimsy proof that the allegations are true. I say this with so much confidence because I commonly get domestic violence cases where the alleged victim reaches out to me and tells me that he or she made up the allegations and she wants the charges dropped. Think about that for a minute. The alleged victim tells me that he or she lied to the police about what happened. It makes you wonder, if it’s not uncommon for the alleged victim to admit that they lied about the allegations, how often are domestic violence allegations untrue when the alleged victim hasn’t recanted their testimony?

Based on all of this, it’s not surprising that many people charged with domestic violence have never been in legal trouble before. Many of these defendants are generally law-abiding citizens who get caught up in the system because of the emotionally charged nature of complicated relationships. Domestic violence charges can carry very serious penalties, so when a person faces domestic violence charges he needs to strategically navigate the case to make sure that the case doesn’t result in an unfair conviction.

When a person is dealing with false accusations of domestic violence, their case usually falls into one of two categories: a case with an uncooperative victim or a case with a cooperative victim.

Uncooperative Complainant

A case has an uncooperative complainant when the alleged victim doesn’t want to assist with the prosecution. An uncooperative complainant simply might not want to be involved with the prosecution, or they might actively ask the prosecutor to drop the charges.

What comes as a shock to most people is that the prosecution will usually not dismiss a case even if the alleged victim asks for the case to be dropped or says that they exaggerated the allegations. 

Prosecutors are often reluctant to drop charges because of concerns about battered woman syndrome. A woman with battered woman syndrome is typically in a cyclical abusive relationship where she is emotionally or physically abused by her partner, she separates from her partner, and then she places blame on herself for the abuse and decides that she wants to go back to her partner. Consequently, when an alleged victim tells the prosecution that she wants the charges dropped or that the allegations are exaggerated, prosecutors may refuse to dismiss the case because of concern that the alleged victim could have battered woman syndrome.

Although battered woman syndrome is a real issue that affects some people, many couples can get into an argument or fight without there being some deep, cyclical pattern of abuse. Accordingly, it can be very frustrating for some families when a partner is arrested for domestic violence, the alleged victim says she wants the charges dropped, yet the prosecution won’t listen.

When the prosecution won’t immediately drop a case involving an uncooperative complainant, there are things your attorney can do to help get the charges dropped.

First, even if you are not allowed to speak to the complainant due to a temporary order of protection, your attorney can speak with the complainant. Oftentimes when the complainant is uncooperative with the prosecution, they are on very good terms with the defense attorney. Your attorney can explain to the complainant how she is not under any legal documentation to sign any paperwork given by the prosecution or police. 

In New York, if supporting documentation is not signed by the complainant within 90 days of arraignment for a misdemeanor case, then the case will be dismissed. Sometimes, though, a domestic incident report signed by the complainant on the day of the incident may be sufficient for the prosecution to move forward without any additional supporting documents. 

Sometimes uncooperative complainants are pressured to signing supporting documentation because the prosecution says they will arrest the complainant and charge them with filing a false police report if they don’t stick with their original version of events. In that case, the uncooperative witness may sign the documentation even if they don’t want the defendant prosecuted.

In the event the court finds sufficient documentation for the case to move forward, a defendant is still very nicely positioned to beat their case when the alleged victim is uncooperative with the prosecution.

Once the case is adjourned for trial, the prosecution will have to reckon with the fact that they will have a very hard time convincing a jury that domestic violence occurred. They may have trouble getting the complainant to appear in court, and if the complainant does appear in court, their testimony will be a wildcard. The complainant will very possibly say that she made up or exaggerated the allegations.

Most importantly, the defense attorney will be able to have a field day in front of the jury. If the prosecution decides to not call the complainant, the defense attorney can argue to the jury, where is the complainant? How can you convict the defendant when the one witness to the alleged crime isn’t even here? Or, the defense can even consider calling the complainant as a witness for its case and have the witness explain to the jury how they exaggerated the charges. 

If the complainant decides to testify consistently with their original statement to police, the defense attorney can cross-examine the complainant about how they previously recanted their testimony, how the prosecution threatened to arrest and charge the witness with filing a false police report, how the complainant asked the prosecution to drop the charges, and so on. 

No matter whether the complainant testifies or not, the prosecution will have a very difficult time convincing a jury to convict an uncooperative client. The only way the prosecution will have a strong case with an uncooperative complainant is if there is third-party corroboration, video footage, or clear, objective injury to the complainant that can’t be attributed to another cause. Unless those facts can be shown, a defendant generally has a great case when the complainant is uncooperative.

Cooperative Complainant

A case has a cooperative complainant when the alleged victim actively participates in the prosecution.

Although cases with a cooperative complainant are more challenging for the defense compared to when the witness is uncooperative, these cases can still be difficult for the prosecution to prove.

As mentioned, domestic violence cases are very emotionally charged, and alleged victims often make false accusations based on a bias or motive to lie. Your attorney must make sure that the jury understands any bias or motive to lie held by the complainant because that will create reasonable doubt as to whether the complainant can be trusted.

Bias and motive to lie are slightly different concepts, although oftentimes they go hand in hand.

A person is biased against another person when they have a prejudice against—or dislike of—a person. For instance, a person might become biased against their spouse if they learn of infidelity. That information may cause the person to hate—and be biased against—their spouse. Such a bias may prompt a complainant to make up or exaggerate allegations due to anger.

On the other hand, a motive to lie exists when a person stands to benefit from a lie. For instance, if a spouse has a child custody battle with the defendant, the spouse could get full custody of the children by lying and saying that the defendant is abusive to the spouse and their children.

In addition to the complainant’s bias or motive to lie, the existence—or lack—of objective, corroborated facts are crucial for a domestic violence case. 

For instance, with a domestic violence assault case, the prosecution must prove that you caused physical injury, which requires more than subjective reporting by the complainant. In other words, the complainant can’t simply say that you hit them and that they were in substantial pain. There needs to be objective proof of the substantial pain, such as bruising or bleeding. Typically, when a complainant falsely accuses a person of domestic violence, there is little or no objective evidence of physical injury. 

When the lack of objective evidence is combined with the complainant’s bias or motive to lie, the prosecution will have a very difficult time proving their case, despite the complainant cooperating with the prosecution.

If you’ve been accused of a domestic violence crime in New York City, give me a call for a free consultation. I can assess your case to determine the best path forward.