Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Charges for the Runaway Bride?

Update: TalkLeft reports that Ms. Wilbanks recanted her false kidnapping story within an hour of questioning by police and FBI. Knowing that, I don't think a criminal prosecution here is warranted. All the expenses incurred in searching for her--what people are really upset about--were incurred before she made her false statements, so I don't see why that justifies criminal charges. The NY Times reports that city officials in Duluth are exploring whether they can sue her for restitution of what they spent searching for her. I don't know what possible cause of action they could have against her. She didn't owe the city a duty not to disappear. She never asked them to look for her. She violated absolutely no laws by disappearing--even by planning it in advance. The town might try to recoup the money from her family, since they are the ones who reported her disappearance and requested a search, but they were acting in good faith when they did that. There's nothing to suggest that any of them knew this was a hoax. My guess is that the family will cough up some of the money they had set aside for a reward and voluntarily reimburse the authorities. That would be the nice thing to do.
Original post:

There's a lot of discussion going on about whether Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called runaway bride, should face criminal charges for her conduct. This is a tough one for me. On one hand, I don't think it's a good idea for people to think that you can get away with falsely reporting that you were abducted. On the other hand, I don't want people who have made false reports to be so fearful of the punishment they could get for admitting they lied that they continue to stick to their false story. I think criminal charges are appropriate if someone sticks to the false story all the way through a trial, and obviously, if they perjure themselves, that must be prosecuted. But in this case, it appears that she admitted the story was false very soon after she was questioned. A lot of people are upset about all the time and money that went into the search for her, and that is understandable. But I'm not sure any of that is attributable to her false report. Unless there's more to the story that hasn't been reported, she voluntarily disappeared. That is not a crime. She didn't appear to have committed a crime until she resurfaced and claimed to have been kidnapped. By then, all the expense and effort to find her had already been expended. Even if, as it now appears, she planned her disappearance ahead of time, and took steps to hid her tracks, that just means that she didn't want to be found. It doesn't mean she conspired to fake her abduction or intended for there to be a massive manhunt. And the fact remains that she recanted her false report within a few hours, and it doesn't sound like the FBI or the Albuquerque police spent much of anything looking for her "kidnappers," as it appears they had major doubts about her story from the beginning.

I have had many cases where the alleged victim told me that he or she had lied to police in the initial report. They made the story up because they wanted my client out of the house, or they wanted to teach him a lesson, or they were just really mad at my client for a million different reasons. But, by the time I talk to them, they are worried that if they tell the truth, they will get charged with making a false report. Now, it would have been better if this person had been deterred by the law against making a false report before we got into this whole mess. But now, the fact that making a false report is a crime is deterring the person from telling the truth and exonerating my client. That kind of deterrence doesn't make the criminal justice system better.

And that's what makes this case so difficult for me. I feel sorry for everyone who spent so much time, money, and energy looking for this woman. And I feel sorry for the fiance, who no doubt faced some very tough questioning from investigators who suspected he had killed her, not to mention the suspicion in the community. But, isn't better that she felt safe enough to come forward and admit she had lied now, than if she had been so worried about being prosecuted that she had kept up the charade? Then again, she told the truth likely knowing she could be prosecuted, so maybe all my handwringing is for nothing.


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2/24/2010 11:16 AM  

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