A false accusation is a criminal accusation made by someone who knows that the accused did not commit the crime in question. This differs from a case where someone is accused by accident, as in the instance of a mistaken identification during a criminal lineup. False accusations can pose a number of problems, including wasting the time of the court and damaging the reputation of the accused. Penalties for making a false accusation vary, depending on the circumstances, but may include fines and jail time.
People can make false accusations informally, as when they give a name to the media, or formally, filing a complaint with law enforcement officers so a prosecutor can start the process of pursuing the matter in court. In both instances, the person making the false accusation wrongly claims that a person committed a crime like assault, rape, child abuse, or theft. The person will provide a name and information about the crime. Law enforcement officers are required to investigate the allegations and must invest energy and personnel in the process of evaluating the crime and helping the prosecutor decide whether to move forward.
Sometimes, a false accusation is unmasked very quickly. The accuser may change the story, provide inconsistent information, or be outed as a liar, as in a case where someone claims a crime has been committed and there is no evidence of a crime. In these instances, the prosecutor will not press charges and will advise the accuser that the legal system does not intend to move forward with the case. In other instances, there is supporting evidence to suggest a crime took place and the prosecutor has reason to believe the accusation, and thus may move forward with a trial.
The process of reviewing claims provides an opportunity for identifying accusations a prosecutor can successfully pursue and separating out false accusations or those with little supporting evidence, which would make them hard to prosecute. People filing claims are reminded at a number of steps of the consequences of their action, with the goal of encouraging people who file false accusations to reconsider and withdraw the claim.
Statistics on the rate of false accusations are difficult to find and vary considerably by nation. Numerous third party organizations provide statistics and they are usually heavily slanted to support a specific point of view. Some people want to claim that such accusations occur at a high rate, while others propose the opposite, arguing for a low false accusation rate. Since accusations are often handled quietly, members of the public are often not aware when someone files a criminal complaint and it is dismissed on grounds of falsehood.