Is it illegal to falsely accuse someone of a crime?

If you wrongly accused someone of a crime — whether intentionally or accidentally — you may worry what will become of you if the police find out. Will you face criminal charges? Will you go to jail? The answer all depends. 

According to FindLaw, the consequences for falsely accusing someone of a crime range from a verbal slap on the wrist to decades in jail. Ultimately, the penalties boil down to how you made the accusation, why and what you accused another person of doing. 

Unintentional false accusations are not a crime

While many of the false accusations the police receive are intentional, a good many more are not. If you report someone for a crime that it turns out they did not commit, you will unlikely face any criminal penalties at all. However, if your accusations have no reasonable basis, it may wander into the false accusations territory, in which case criminal and civil liability may become an issue. 

Intentional false accusations are illegal

The police receive intentional false accusations quite frequently, and many of them come from individuals who are party to custody proceedings. False accusations can have significant adverse consequences for the accused, including job loss, emotional distress and life disruption. Furthermore, false accusations result in a waste of government resources, as the police have a duty to investigate claims and either make an arrest or disprove them. 

Because of the harm untruths can cause, almost every jurisdiction has some sort of criminal statute that criminalizes false reports to law enforcement. In most cases, intentional false accusations result in misdemeanor charges and up to one year in jail. The accused can also file a claim in civil court for damages, which may include punitive damages.