There’s been a lot of media coverage about how a rise in domestic violence cases is a sad and frightening consequence of staying at home due to COVID-19 (see examples of coverage here, here, and here). For victims of domestic violence this is, of course, a nightmare scenario: choose between staying at home with an abuser who’s becoming increasingly volatile due to the stresses we’re all under right now or leaving and risking getting sick and speading sickness to others. There’s another group that’s especially hard hit by this trend, however, and their plight doesn’t get the media coverage or the retweets and likes in social media. That group is people falsely accused of domestic violence.

Tensions rising at home also lead to false accusations and wrongful arrests. It’s a dirty secret inside the criminal justice world that – while domestic violence is undeniably a huge problem – another serious problem is people who falsely accuse their loved ones of assault family violence. There are people out there, unfortunately, who see calling the police and accusing someone of assault family violence as a tool to get what they want. And then there’s an even bigger group of people who don’t have any bad intent, they don’t necessarily even want the other person to be arrested or charged, but they call the police hoping for a mediator to an argument or a cooling off period. In my career as a criminal defense attorney I’ve heard it more times than I can count: “I didn’t want him [or her] to go to jail, I just wanted the police to make him [or her] leave.” Sadly these calls can lead to unintended tragic consequences like arrest, criminal charges, the loss of jobs/homes, and a permanent record.

In this stressful and frightening time, here are a few tips you can follow to avoid a situation like this:

  1. Do not call the police unless you really need them and understand that they’re probably going to arrest someone when they come out. I’ve heard officers say over and over that these days when they get a domestic disturbance call “someone is going to jail.” Obviously if you’re the victim of an assault, call the police. If you are really worried for your safety, call the police. If not, think carefully before you pick up that phone.
  2. If you need a cooling off period, don’t call the police hoping that they’ll just make the person you’re arguing with leave for the night. Those days are gone. If the police come out someone is probably going to jail.
  3. Deescalate before things get too heated. Whether it’s walking away from each other early on and then coming back when you’ve both cooled off, or counting to 10 before you say something you might not really mean, the best way to handle a big fight is to avoid getting into one at all. As a criminal defense attorney I’ve seen many times that a criminal case (true accusations as well as wrongful ones) starts with an argument that got out of hand. If you can keep it from getting out of hand in the first place, do that.
  4. If you need a mediator, call a loved one to mediate. The police have too many roles thrust upon them already. They respond to and investigate crime. They have had to become de facto mental health frontline workers (that’s another subject entirely). They do not have the time or personnel to respond to calls to act as a mediator in an argument. When you thrust them into this role their training is not to mediate, but to investigate crime and make an arrest. Don’t be surprised if they do just that.
  5. If your loved one calls the police on you, understand that leaving the scene will probably hurt you. While not being there whent he police arrive is understandable (if you’re not there they can’t exactly take you to jail and who wants to go to jail?!) but understand that if there’s only one person there when the police arrive, they’re only going to get that person’s side of the story. In a perfect world they would follow up with you to get your side and conduct a thorough investigation, but quite often that’s not the way it happens in the real world. As mentioned above, the police are understaffed and overburdened already. Sadly if they come out and get one side of the story, don’t be surprised if they simply put out an arrest warrant for you based on just that one side of the story.
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