We recently heard reports about a gunpoint robbery of Ryan Lochte and three fellow Olympic swimmers. The narrative fit in snugly with news accounts of rampant crime in Rio de Janeiro and of a nation in disarray. But now the tide has turned—it appears as though the athletes may have fabricated the account. Although the story is still unfolding, it strikes me as an opportune moment to take a look at the law related to false crime reports in Massachusetts.
Falsely reporting a crime to the police typically exposes the person to criminal charges. This does not mean the consequences are especially dire. Under Massachusetts law, “Whoever intentionally and knowingly makes or causes to be made a false report of a crime to police officers shall be punished by a fine of not less than one hundred nor more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than one year, or both.” Mass. Gen. Law. Ch. 269, Sec. 13A. Many states have similar penalties, although a few prescribe stiffer sanctions when a person falsely reports a crime that would be a felony.
The rationale for making this behavior a crime in and of itself seems rooted in two major punishment theories: deterrence and retribution. The legislature wants to deter people from falsely reporting crimes, actions that waste law enforcement’s time and expend scarce investigative resources. False reporting, like lying generally, is also considered blameworthy; from the perspective of retributive justice, we want to devise a punishment that matches that level of blame, with a low-level crime emerging as the legislative choice in the Commonwealth.
In addition to criminal charges, false reports may lead to civil liability. Let’s say Adam falsely accuses Bob of a crime; those accusations are made public; and Bob suffers harm to his reputation, perhaps even loses his job. This could provide the foundation for a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages.
That’s an admittedly simplistic overview of the legal consequences of making a false report of a crime to the police. The devil is in the details. When is a report deemed “false”? Must the underlying premise of the report be wholly inaccurate— the event never occurred—or is embellishment about the specifics enough to trigger charges or is the answer somewhere in the middle? In Massachusetts, there is case law suggesting that only a “substantially inaccurate” report will generate criminal liability. As the Massachusetts Appeals Court stated in a 2011 decision:
The particular phrasing that the Legislature chose suggests that the speaker's “report of” a crime itself has to be “false.” In our view, this phrasing implies that the false statements at issue need to cross a certain threshold of materiality. That is, we believe that to violate the statute, the defendant has to have made a substantially inaccurate accounting of a crime, not just have reported some untrue detail related to it.
Commonwealth v. Fortuna, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 45, 52 (2011). That sounds helpful, but what constitutes a “substantially inaccurate accounting” may be less than crystal clear. If you claim someone took your wallet at gunpoint, and then later amend that statement to suggest the person did not have a gun, is that initial report “substantially inaccurate”? The inclusion of a fictional gun seems greater than “some untrue detail,” but does it rise to the level of a substantially inaccurate account assuming that a perpetrator did take your wallet without permission?
It is unclear at this point whether four American Olympic swimmers in Rio were the victims of a robbery. Going forward, it may be interesting to keep in mind the ambiguities surrounding false reports of crimes in our own jurisdiction.