Filing a false police report is a criminal offense. Depending on state law, it can result in misdemeanor or felony charges. Misleading police officers by making a false police report amounts to a crime against the criminal justice system itself. It causes law enforcement officers to undertake a criminal investigation for no reason. As a result, police resources may be unavailable to address other crimes in the community.
A false police report provides a good example of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment and, in fact, is considered a crime against justice. Although almost every state prohibits filing false police reports, the language of the statutes may vary.
The following article provides a general overview of the crime, including common examples and defenses. It will also discuss possible penalties and potential civil liability that can result from this crime.
Filing a False Police Report: Common Situations
The following are common situations in which someone has filed a false police report.
Your neighbor operates a home remodeling business out of his home. He parties a lot and does not manage his money well. He calls the police and claims several thousand dollars worth of building supplies were stolen from his pickup truck, which he parked in his driveway. In reality, he moved the supplies to his basement and plans to make a fraudulent insurance claim. When police ask if he saw anyone around the truck, he says he's not sure. He gives the description of two teens that live up the street, stating he saw them walking by shortly after the theft. The police officers take his false police report and go looking for the teens.
If discovered, your neighbor could face charges for filing a false police report. He knew he made a false statement to the police. No theft took place.
Parents are struggling through a nasty divorce. The father's job requires regular travel out of town. The court-issued parenting time orders place the children (ages 12 and nine) with their mother throughout most of the week. The father knows the mother goes out with her friends on Tuesday nights. He calls the police on a Tuesday night to "check the welfare" of the children, claiming that they have been left home alone. The police find the children at the neighbor's home. The adult neighbor is watching them. The mother tells the police officers that the father knew the children were all right. The neighbor normally watches the children on Tuesday nights.
The father here could also face charges for filing a false police report. This may be a close call for the police. The mother and father may provide conflicting statements on whether the father knew the children were safe.
Jeff and Cindy live together in Jeff's apartment. They argue frequently. Jeff works and pays for the apartment. He does not want Cindy to work outside the home. He discourages her from seeing her former co-workers and friends. One night, their argument gets very heated. Jeff strikes Cindy across the face. Cindy calls 911. The police respond and arrest Jeff based on Cindy's statement. A few weeks later, Cindy goes to court. She tells the prosecutor that she lied to the police. She says she tripped and hit her head on the kitchen counter. She wants all charges dropped against Jeff.
If the police believe Cindy's second statement, they may charge her with filing a false police report. But if they believe Cindy's first statement and think she is protecting an abuser, they may not see her second statement as a criminal matter. Police and prosecutors must seek a just outcome. If they believe Jeff hit Cindy, they cannot, in good faith, charge Cindy for her recantation. Victims of domestic abuse often recant their statements to protect the abuser or to protect themself from further abuse. The prosecutor must determine whether they can prove their case, regardless of the recantation by Cindy.
Clark had several drinks with his buddies after work. In spite of their offers to drive him home, he left the bar and got in his own car. While on the road, he went left of center and then swerved to avoid striking another motor vehicle. He hit the guardrail, wrecking his car. He left his car and walked to a different bar. He then ordered a few drinks and called his wife for a ride. The police arrived before his wife. Someone reported his wrecked motor vehicle. The police officers asked if Clark was drinking before he wrecked the car. They suspected he was driving under the influence (DUI). Clark lied and said he only had a drink after the accident.
In this case, Clark is lying to avoid arrest for DUI. Although the police suspect he is lying, they will need to know more about his conduct before the accident. They likely don't have enough information to charge him with making a false report of a crime.
Filing a False Police Report: Elements of the Crime
Someone filing a police report that turns out to be inaccurate or even completely false doesn't necessarily result in a criminal case. A person's memory may be unreliable, or they may have relied on false information when filing the report. The issue will likely turn on whether they knew their statement was false when they made it. The elements of the crime usually include the following:
- The defendant filed a report with a peace officer (which may include district attorneys, attorneys general, etc.); and
- The defendant knew (or had reason to believe) the report was false
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 specific wrongful intent. This may be to interfere with the criminal justice system or to implicate another person. For instance, someone in a criminal gang files a false police report against a member of a rival gang in order to "take the heat off" one of their own.
As in every criminal case, the state must prove the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.
Filing a False Police Report: Defenses
As filing a false police report is a criminal offense that can result in a jail sentence, those accused of the crime usually obtain legal advice. Legal defenses associated with this crime include:
- The defendant had a good faith belief that the report was true
- The defendant had incomplete information and was mistaken
- The defendant did not make the report (someone else did, claiming to be the defendant)
- The defendant did not file the report properly (e.g., with the wrong agency—one that could not act on it)
Filing a False Police Report: Law Enforcement Case
The crime of filing a false police report applies to everyone. The Sheriff's Office in Orange County, California, found this out after an extensive audit discovered several cases. In these cases, deputies filed reports on seized items that they never booked into the evidence room. The booking scandal led the Orange County District Attorney to review over 22,000 cases that occurred between 2015 and 2018 to determine if there were other cases where evidence was collected but not booked. The case review caused the re-opening, reduction, or dismissal of charges in some 67 cases. Under California law, when a police officer files a false police report, the offense becomes a felony perjury case. At least three deputy sheriffs entered into a plea bargain and pled to misdemeanor charges in the incident, including charges of filing a false police report.
Charges and Penalties
In most jurisdictions, an individual who knowingly files a false police report faces misdemeanor charges. For example, pursuant to California Penal Code Section 148.5, a false report crime can result in up to six months in county jail, in addition to fines and court costs. The court may also suspend jail time and set a term of probation. Conditions of probation can include counseling or community service. Judges have discretion with sentencing. They will likely consider such factors as the defendant's criminal record, any motive for making the false report, and the consequences of the report (e.g., whether an innocent person was arrested as a result).
Yet, the false report may be linked to other criminal activity, such as obstruction of justice (hindering 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. In Michigan, for example, false reporting on terrorism can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
More recently, states have enacted laws against swatting and other offenses where someone calls for emergency responders and makes a false report. In Ohio, the crime of swatting is a felony offense and can carry up to 18 months in state prison.
Whether filing a false police report gets charged as a misdemeanor or felony depends on the facts of the case and state law. Criminal penalties may vary widely among the states. Federal law also addresses filing a false report to federal law enforcement officers and other officials.
Civil Liability for False Police Reports
If you file a false police report, there's a very good chance that you could be held civilly liable. If the false report led to someone's arrest or injury, that person may file actions for defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress. They can make a claim for damages resulting from your actions.
Some jurisdictions don't require proof of such damages. They 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
For someone accused of filing a false police report, it's important to understand state law and the legal defenses that may be available. Consider talking with a criminal defense attorney who can help you assess your situation and provide legal advice.