Falsely accusing someone of a crime is a crime itself. In most states, including Texas and Georgia, a person can face up to a year in jail and thousands of dollars in fines for making a false report or “pretending” a person is a victim. Recently, “Empire” TV star, actor Jussie Smollett, has been charged with a felony for filing a false police report after he claimed he was physically assaulted in an alleged attack.

After an intense investigation, Chicago police determined he staged the entire incident and his motivations may have been tied to a contract dispute with the producers of the show. Sadly, this entire spectacle looks to be a hoax perpetrated by Smollett himself for more money. It has completely backfired on Mr. Smollett and he is now the center of a mounting legal battle. Kudos to the Chicago investigators for taking Mr. Smollett’s claim seriously and not bowing to public pressure.

“Victims should be taken seriously but not always believed.” A valid point from political comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time. Even in the most emotionally compelling situation, it’s important to be skeptical and remember not everyone tells the truth. In my two decades practicing law on both sides, as both prosecutor and defense attorney, I incorporate a wide variety of tools and techniques to get to the facts and expose inconsistencies or falsehoods. Scrutinizing the evidence, the parties involved, and their motivations are critical when fighting a false allegation or verifying whether an actual crime was committed.

The harsh punishment for a false accusation is usually a deterrent to those with ulterior motives but false reports are still all too common. When a claim is determined to be false, the tables quickly turn and it’s the false accuser that faces severe criminal charges. Most states treat filing a false police report as a Class 4 Felony which is punishable by massive fines and 1-3 years in prison. Additionally, the falsely accused often sue the accuser for damages under libel, slander, and/or defamation. One North Carolina woman recently won $500,000 from a simple Facebook post accusing her of a crime.

In our zeal to protect victims, must keep in mind that false accusations and fake victims are a real problem and a drain on resources. Emotions run especially high when the purported victim is a minority, a child, or any protected class of citizen. With easy access to social media, opinions spread like wildfire and facts often get lost or totally fabricated. Meanwhile, the falsely accused can be demonized with irreparable harm to their reputations. Luckily, Mr. Smollett’s accusation was an “anonymous” attacker(s). (Further investigation has indicated Smollett may have hired actors to take part in the staged attack.)

We saw this same social dynamic play out before our eyes in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It was never clear what happened decades ago, but both sides of the hearing felt the sting of public fury and a culture of choosing sides before facts could be established. Right or wrong, both Justice Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford will forever contend with the fallout from their very public ordeal.

When Mr. Smollett’s claims hit the headlines, public figures, Hollywood celebrities, and other high profile people jumped to his defense and condemned the “hate crime”. It quickly spiraled into a hodgepodge of condemnation of American culture at large, underlying racial tension, and homosexual persecution. All of those points are deserving of ongoing public examination, but like real victims of real crimes, those intentions were lost in the fallout from an alleged deception. Sadly, instead of engaging all sides in a real conversation on pressing social issues, crying “wolf” allows critics to dismiss those points as nonsense.

Civil discourse is the real victim here. We can’t have a meaningful conversation about any topic when all sides are just looking to say “gotcha”. We should all withhold judgement until the professionals, the courts, and law enforcement can establish facts around a case and determine their validity. Keeping an open mind may be difficult but it’s important we do so. Otherwise, we risk demeaning the plight of real victims, condemning the innocent, and shutting down much needed civil conversations.

If you or a loved one have been accused or facing charges and need experienced legal help, contact the Law Office of Attorney Andrea M. Kolski. Andrea M. Kolski a former Texas prosecutor and past president of the Montgomery County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.