BE PREPARED FOR BOGUS ALLEGATIONS
The scary part of this story is how easily it could happen to anyone. Of course, few people give much thought to what they should do (and not do) if they are falsely accused. But like us prior to our ordeal, you too might have an “it’ll never happen to me” attitude. But the truth is, there’s no way to know for sure what curveballs life might have in store—and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Read on for eight lessons we learned in the Criminal Justice School of Hard Knocks. Having this information beforehand might make a huge difference if you or a loved one is ever falsely accused of a crime.
Have an “arrest plan” in place (yes, it could happen to you). Generally, people don’t assume that their homes will catch fire. Statistically speaking, it’s not a likely occurrence. But most people still take out homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, just in case. Likewise, though you hope it’ll never happen, you teach your child to scream and run if accosted by a stranger. You’ve probably considered what you’d do if someone approached you in a dark parking lot. And depending on where you live, your family may have a wildfire, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake plan in place. In the same way, you should think through and be prepared for a possible arrest.
Likewise, it is wise to have “the talk” with your kids beforehand. This particular “talk” should be about what they should do if they are ever arrested or interrogated by law enforcement officers, regardless of the reason.
Be the first to call 911. The person to call 911 is always going to be considered the victim, regardless of the circumstances. If you find yourself in any sort of threatening situation, whether it’s with a family member, friend, coworker, or complete stranger, don’t hesitate. Be the first to call 911. While it may not seem “right” or “fair,” the first person to call 911 is going to be regarded as the victim, regardless of the facts or the truth.
Even though he was telling a blatant lie, Steven’s accuser was treated by law enforcement as the victim since they heard his version of the story first. As we learned, once you have been taken into custody, you have been classified as the perpetrator of the crime. The so-called victim will receive support from victims’ advocates, the press, law enforcement, the community, etc., while you and your family are on your own to clear your name. Trust me, being the first to pick up the phone can save you an unimaginable amount of stress, time, notoriety, and money.
Everyone involved has the right to remain silent. Imagine the following scenario: Your spouse (or any loved one) has just been handcuffed and taken away from your home in a police car. You are out of your league with no idea what is going on, and you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety, panic, confusion, and fear. Meanwhile, other officers and detectives have remained at your residence. Your first instinct is to talk to them, to tell them the truth about what happened, and to prove to them that your spouse has done nothing wrong. Don’t.
Even if you aren’t the person being accused of a crime, exercise your right to remain silent! Don’t talk to anyone without a lawyer present. I shouted that very warning at my husband as the police put him in the squad car, but it never occurred to me that I should follow my own advice as I sat at home with a deputy waiting for the search warrant to arrive. In court I was grilled by the prosecution about what I said and what I didn’t say. If Steven had been found guilty because of something I’d said, or a fact I hadn’t mentioned had put doubt into the jury’s minds, I would never have forgiven myself.
Insist on a search warrant, even if you have nothing to hide. “Can we search the house?” If you know that you have not committed any wrongdoing and have nothing to hide, you may be tempted to answer this question with a “yes.” The more cooperative I am, the sooner this will be over, you reason. Maybe the officers will even see that I’m innocent, and my family will never be bothered again.
Squelch the impulse to be open and helpful, and don’t allow anyone to search your house without a warrant. Insisting on the warrant was probably the smartest thing I did the night my husband was arrested. As I found out later, it can tell your lawyer what the police were looking for. And if the search wasn’t executed properly, having the warrant might make whatever was found ineligible to be introduced as evidence. Remember, it’s always best to have physical documentation when you’re dealing with the criminal justice system.
Expect to be treated like you’re guilty. Again, what you see on TV and what happens in real life are two different things. The criminal justice system is focused on prosecution and on garnering guilty verdicts, so don’t expect a full-scale Law and Order- or CSI-type investigation. Instead, expect to be prosecuted even if the facts and evidence don’t support a guilty verdict.
Unless your case is extremely high-profile, it’s unlikely that the prosecutor will even review the case file until shortly before the trial. And the prosecutor will proceed even when the supposed victim indicates that he or she prefers to put an end to the proceeding. Meanwhile, you might be forced to live under court-ordered stipulations that resemble nothing so much as parole.
For instance, Steven had to submit to random alcohol testing, had to meet with a drug counselor, couldn’t be in proximity to weapons, and couldn’t leave Colorado without special permission. Not to mention the fact that we were in and out of court and his name was in the newspaper, while the supposed “victim” walked free in anonymity! After Steven was acquitted, we practically had to beg the newspaper to run a story announcing that he had been found innocent.
Proving your innocence comes with a very high price tag. Since Steven did not take the plea bargain he was offered and instead maintained his innocence, he paid a very high price. Proceeding to trial doubled our legal expenses and made the process last twice as long. In contrast, the false accuser did not have to pay legal fees, and his transportation to and from the trial was covered. And the sad reality is that we had no recourse to either the individuals or the legal system that falsely accused us and prosecuted us even after Steven was found not guilty.
We do not in any way regret the decision to proceed to trial. It was the right decision for us, but many families will not have either the financial or emotional resources to successfully undertake this course of action. You need to know the costs in advance before deciding to go ahead. Yes, I know, it seems incredibly unfair—even unbelievable—that an innocent person would have to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to prove that he has done nothing illegal. But that’s reality.
Don’t skimp on a lawyer. If you are falsely accused of a crime and decide to proceed to trial, don’t skimp on a lawyer. This is not the time to save money. If your finances are tight, shop at discount stores and give up steak and wine—but don’t look for bargain legal counsel.
If you go to trial, you want the best lawyer you can afford…or perhaps one a tad more expensive than you can afford. Personally, I’d rather go into debt than go to jail for something I didn’t do. If you simply cannot afford a lawyer, public defenders are an option. I’ll put in the caveat that I’m by no means an expert, but my impression is that a public defender will try to dispose of your case by urging you to take a plea bargain offer. Public defenders are overworked and have a lot of cases, so again, they’re probably looking for the easiest and fastest “solution.”
Be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. If the process of going to trial is financially costly, it’s every bit as brutal on your emotional reserves. Expect for everyone in the family to feel stress, fear, anger, and exhaustion (just to name a few) on a regular basis. You might cry easily, little things will make you mad, and your sex life will likely suffer. So cut yourself and your loved ones some slack, and be easy on yourselves. This is not the time to go on a diet or start a new job. And don’t worry—feeling this way is normal.
The seven months between when my husband was arrested and his trial were more stressful than watching both of my parents die of a fatal disease. During those periods I could talk to friends. Everyone in my life was supportive. It was socially acceptable to fall apart. I wasn’t ashamed that my parents and I were going through the process. And there are plenty of available resources on how to deal with the death of a parent. However, none of that is the case when you’re dealing with the wrongful prosecution of a loved one. You can never escape the stress and strain, and there are very few emotional outlets available to you.