Motivations for False Allegations in Colorado Criminal Cases

Forensic psychiatrists are often asked to evaluate allegations that some people make against others, particularly health care providers, persons in authority, and parents in custody battles.

Allegations based on sexual misconduct, physical violence, or child abuse carry a particularly charged quality. The sensational nature of such charges is often unsettling, touching emotional issues in both the accused and the examiner.

The concepts of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” and “there must be at least a grain of truth in every allegation” can be evoked to justify elaborate investigations, which can place the accused in the unfortunate (sometimes impossible) position of trying to disprove a negative.

  • Motivations for False Allegations
  • Emotional Motivations
  • Some accusers are emotionally troubled, perhaps trying to establish boundaries or seek media attention.
  • Revenge is another common motive

In a letter to a newspaper “Talking With Teens” column, an adolescent wrote:

“Dear Dr. Wallace: … My best friend hates her stepfather. About a month ago, she told me she was going to tell the police that he molested her sexually even though it wasn’t true. Well, last week she did just that and has caused a big stink. Her stepfather had to hire a lawyer to defend himself even though he was 100% innocent. He was also tossed out of their house by my friend’s mom. The main reason she hates her stepfather is that he made her break up with her 19-year-old boyfriend.

My friend is 14. The only people who know that this man is innocent is [sic] my friend, her boyfriend, who also hates him, and me. So that means I am the only one who can save him. What should I do? I really don’t want to lose my best friend, and if I speak the truth, I know that she will never talk to me again.” (Orlando Sentinel)

Accusations to Protect Oneself from Consequences of Other Behavior.

Children, especially, commonly use false accusations to avoid punishment for (often minor) family or social misbehavior.

An example – Several years ago, a young high school student who was emotionally distraught because, she said, a teacher had fondled her. She had failed one of her courses, and when confronted by her father, told him that she had failed because the teacher was punishing her for refusing his advances. The father became enraged, called the sheriff (an old friend), and had his daughter file sexual assault charges.

A Teacher

The teacher was arrested. The local newspaper featured the story prominently. Although the teacher strongly denied any inappropriate contact with the young woman, it was a matter of his word against hers. Even his wife was not sure whether or not to believe him.

When the student was being interviewed, she broke into tears and said the situation had gotten totally out of hand. She reported that her father’s anger at her failed grade took her by surprise and “that (accusing her teacher) was the first thing that came to my mind.”After making the allegation, she felt trapped in her lie and unable to withdraw it.

With the girl’s knowledge and permission, the lawyer called both her father and the sheriff. Charges were subsequently dropped, but the teacher’s standing and career in the community were ruined. He and his wife ultimately sold their home and moved to another state.

Mixed Motivations: Emotional Needs and Revenge When Needs Are Not Met

Another example – A young woman with borderline personality disorder complained to a county medical society that her psychiatrist had behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner with her. After a series of assessment interviews, she finally said that she had been angry at her psychiatrist, that he had not given her the attention she wanted, and that she made up the charges to get even. Although she candidly admitted that he had never touched her, she said that she was “sure that he wanted to.”

The charges were dropped when she refused to pursue them further or attend a hearing to tell her story. The doctor had been made to “pay the price” for not meeting her narcissistic and borderline needs in the way she wished at the time.

The Need for a Forensic Analysis

This group of examples suggests that false allegations occur in a variety of contexts, and emphasizes the need for psychiatrists evaluating such charges to be painfully objective and to realize that false allegations do occur with some regularity.

False Allegations of Sexual Assault

Research has found that “a significant proportion of allegations of rape and indecent assault reported to the police are found to be untrue.

This is often hotly denied by women’s groups, but is an indisputable fact… However, (it is) equally true… that only a minority of real sexual assaults are reported to authorities

Myers noted that some 45% of allegations of sexual abuse in the United States are unsubstantiated.7 Forensic psychiatrists and other mental health professionals must remember that although allegations are often genuine, there is an almost equal number of cases— if Myers’ data are to be believed—in which they are not.

[Myers JEB. Allegations of child sexual abuse in custody and visitation litigation: Recommendations for improved fact finding and child protection. Journal of Family Law 1989-90;28:1–41.]

A complete and objective assessment is required, and especially so when accusations emerge in contexts such as the following:

  • Certain kinds of mental illness and character traits.
  • Divorce proceedings
  • Child custody proceedings
  • Situations with the potential for substantial financial reward
  • Situations in which the accuser has an emotional or characterological reason to avoid discovery, prosecution, or confrontation with legal (or parental) authority (e.g., those with antisocial personality traits, some substance abusers)
  • A history of repeated past allegations, particularly if they have not been fully investigated
  • Unusual timing of the accusation or alleged event (e.g., alleged “date rape” within an otherwise close and stable relationship, or accusations made only when some sort of secondary purpose or reward is evident).
Forensic Analysis – Elements

Obtaining a full and complete history, including gathering corroborating information, can make the difference between finding the truth and causing lasting harm to an innocent person.

Examples: False Allegations Against A University Professor

A university professor was accused of attempting to impose sexual activity on a coed with threats that, should she fail to satisfy him sexually, she would receive a failing mark in his class. The coed also alleged that he had fondled her and called her repetitively at her home. Her charges, which were made in elaborate detail, initially sounded credible and were taken seriously by the university. The professor was placed on administrative leave.

Toward the end of her evaluation, the complainant reported that she was distressed that one cannot trust teachers, saying “they always do this sort of thing.” When questioned about whether or not she had experienced this in the past, she reported that she had been sexually accosted by both the principal of her high school and a band director. In addition, several years earlier she had filed charges of rape against a local sailor. Her allegations had caused considerable harm to all the men she accused.

The low probability that the same woman would be the victim of four separate sexual assaults led to a careful inquiry into the previous cases. We learned from her parents that the allegations against the high school principal and the band director had been shown to be unfounded, and that they also suspected that her complaint of having been raped by the sailor was an attention-seeking device. When this information was made available to the university, the charges against the professor were dropped.

False Allegations Against A Police Officer

In another case, a police officer was accused of trying to drag an intoxicated woman into the woods to have sex with her. During a careful inquiry, she reported that a similar situation had occurred in a faraway state under similar circumstances (when she had been stopped by a highway patrolman for driving while intoxicated and speeding). The fact that there

had been two allegations made under almost identical circumstances, and the alternative possibility that the woman was attempting to avoid being held responsible for driving while intoxicated, weakened the credibility of her allegations.


The forensic psychiatrist should make a careful, detailed review of the allegation and the accuser’s mental state and circumstances.

Some key factors to be considered in the evaluation of any allegation are:
  1. Is accuser creditable?
  2. Is story consistent and believable?
  3. Is there an ulterior motive (e.g., revenge, reward, mischief)?
  4. Have other allegations been made previously? Does a pattern of allegations exist?
  5. Has the patient been counseled about his/her charges by someone with a vested interest?
  6. Is there any physical evidence of misdeeds?
  7. What is the reputation of the accused?
  8. How does the accused respond to the charges?
  9. Are issues of child custody, property settlement, divorce, or lawsuit involved?
  10. Is there a personality disorder (e.g., antisocial, narcissistic, borderline) in either party?
  11. Is there a history of alcohol or substance abuse in either party?

* Summarized from The Journal of Psychiatric Practice September 2001

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