CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, May 2, 2005

Should Hoaxes be treated as Criminal Offenses?

The 32-year old who faked a kidnapping will not face criminal charges--the thousands of hours, millions of dollars and, presumably, multiple gunpoint stops of people fitting the fabricated description of the suspects must be disregarded in light of the fact that the woman faced a stressful wedding--only a cad would insist on the letter of the law.  "She needed some time alone," empathized Albuquerque's Chief of Police.  The Albuquerque Tribune reports that "authorities from several law enforcement agencies went beyond the call of duty - giving her a teddy bear, an FBI cap and polo shirt, a tote bag, meals and even a shoulder to cry on - to make her daylong stay in the city comfortable." Last year, Minnesota college student Audrey Seiler faked her kidnapping and got misdemeanor probation.  On the other hand, the 19-year old college student who faked a racial incident is facing the hammer--the highest degree of all possible charges.  After all, she selfishly disrupted the campus for her own personal reasons.  [Jack Chin] UPDATE: Although apparently in the clear in New Mexico, where the false statements were made, the runaway bride may in fact face criminal charges in Georgia, according to prosecutors--even though Duluth, GA Police Chief Randy Belcher has been quoted as saying no charges would be filed. AND PS: I don't deal with the Wendy's hoaxer here because it is uncontroversial that scammers for profit are subject to prosecution.  The more difficult problem is people who do this sort of thing for emotional reasons.

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» Runaway Bride; Charge Her With a Criminal Offense from Scared Monkeys
Jennifer Wilbanks , the now famous runaway bride to be of Duluth, GA who has stated she left because of cold feet and the pressure of the wedding should be charged. There are many women who have been in the same situation but they did not create a miss... [Read More]

Tracked on May 1, 2005 7:42:43 PM

» Attention Hungry, Nothing More from GM's Corner
Somebody should bend Jennifer Willbanks over their knee and whoop her butt, but good. What a juvenile.... stressed out my Aunt Fannie!!!! UPDATE: CrimProf Blog wonders if charges need to be filed for the hoax. On rethinking this issue, I wonder if the ... [Read More]

Tracked on May 2, 2005 6:36:00 AM

» Runaway Bride Pt. II from Iowa Voice
I said earlier that I thought they should just leave this "runaway bride" (Jennifer Wilbanks) alone, and just let her and her family deal with her problems. When I first commented on that, I hadn't heard yet that she had also claimed to have been kidna [Read More]

Tracked on May 2, 2005 4:43:22 PM

» Hoax, Criminal Act or Just Plain Stupidity from Ridgecrest Blog
What kind of punishment should she receive? How about she perform the same hours of community service as the police, and emergency agencies spent in looking for her? ..... So was this a hoax, criminal act or just plain stupidity? I think I vote for ... [Read More]

Tracked on May 3, 2005 10:01:39 AM


I don't think the analogy is on point. The "faked" racial incident wasn't "faked" in the sense that the other crimes were faked--the perpetrator really did commit (if the facts as alleged are true) a hate crime against a third party. It isn't a case where someone has falsely claimed to be victimized, but a case where someone has truly victimized another person, but done it without the typical expected motivation.

Posted by: Thomas | May 1, 2005 6:37:01 PM

For crimes like this, we should bring back the stocks.

A few days of public humiliation is an appropriate punishment for lots of minor crimes.

Posted by: John Davies | May 1, 2005 6:51:26 PM

Also in the earlier cases, the act was apparrently more deliberately planned out beforehand.

Posted by: Mike Loewinger | May 1, 2005 6:53:57 PM

Let's spell it out: Tawana Brawley, and see who salutes.


Posted by: fang_lun | May 1, 2005 7:07:07 PM

How could you forget the Wendy's finger-in-the-chili hoax? That cost the company a million dollars a day and a lot of police time. The hoaxer is facing fraud charges.

Posted by: Zach Foreman | May 1, 2005 7:08:55 PM

What would she be charged with? She did not file any sort of police report. Last I checked adults can decide they want to go somewhere without telling anyone. Theoretically she could claim she didn't know anyone was looking for her.

Posted by: nathaniel | May 1, 2005 7:38:35 PM

Seems to me if the hoaxer causes a significant cost to society (searches, extra police time, etc) s/he should at least be responsible for paying those costs back to whatever agencies accrued the actual costs.

Whether we should get into "pain and suffering", etc, would probably fall into the civil suit arena an would lead to endless lawsuits. But wait, we already have those, don't we?

Posted by: srg | May 1, 2005 7:38:42 PM

I don't know if you have to sign something for it to count as a police report, but she supposedly called the authorities and claimed to have been kidnapped by an Hispanic, did she not?

Posted by: mcg | May 1, 2005 7:48:40 PM

Her actions could have done nothing but for a "reasonable person" to assume she met with foul play. She went out of her way to create the appearance that she was abducted. Not to mention she cut her hair not to be recognized.

No one could not imagine that suddenly vanishing two days before their wedding after going for a simple jog would not have created a missing persons search. NO ONE.

On top of it to continue her hoax she even told the police in NM that she was kidnapped. Intent is what is at play here.

Her intent was to disappear as if she was kidnapped.

Posted by: Red | May 1, 2005 7:51:11 PM


That was true until she called the police in New Mexico. Whether that could open her ex-post-facto to liability for all the searches seems unlikely, although I am not an expert on where the law stands on that. But it is generally a crime to make false crime reports to the police. However, in the first press conference after she showed up, the FBI spokesman in New Mexico said that they were closing down the case without charges (while he had no position on charges in her home state). Odd, I'd say.

Now, if I "woke up" from such an insane, selfish trip because of cold feet, I'd go into a bar, have a few drinks, call the police from there, and explain that I'd been on a multi-day bender. People would forgive me a lot quicker, so long as I swore off the booze.

Posted by: dwpittelli | May 1, 2005 7:52:49 PM

Once she said that someone kidnapped her and gave a description, then it cannot be considered as her spending "time alone". She should be made to reimburse the city for whatever money they spent on trying to "find" her. What she did was ridiculous...she is a 30+ year old woman, not a immature teenager.

Posted by: Angel | May 1, 2005 8:25:22 PM

If she just left for no reason, without a trace, then she wouldn't be responsible. Why should she be to blame for others' reactions. She also has the right to leave whenever she wants. However, she had the intent to deceive, which deliberately caused others to suffer costs. She should be responsible for the costs in this case.

Maybe this right to travel is also complimented by the responsibility to inform parties who might suffer costs. The debate, it would seem, is whether someone has the responsibility to inform potentially affected parties of their wishes to leave. This opens up a whole can of worms.

Posted by: Marcin | May 1, 2005 10:18:53 PM

The usual missing person gets a ``Well, let's see if they turn up.'' treatment if anybody reports it, with no action.

This happens to have made the woman-in-peril story of the week for the soap-opera press. Police respond to the media story with legs.

Neither of those is the fault of the crazy girlfriend.

She's in trouble with the false police report at the end, but only for the negligible expenses that result from that. The rest is the fault of the soap-opera news audience and the people who cater to them.

Posted by: Ron Hardin | May 2, 2005 12:48:10 AM

In colorado, and I assume other jurisdictions, if a person requires rescue from a backcountry situation with a helicopter or rescue team, the person is required to pay the cost of that rescue. The operative logic is that the person is responsible for putting themselves at risk.

I see these hoaxes as analagous. The perpetrator has caused public costs to be incurred through their actions, ergo, they should be liable for those costs. Penalties should be in the form of a significant fine OR jailtime, community service, etc.

Adult runaways are a separate issue. I don't think it's a crime to be missing, and not tell anyone where you were going. Lying to police is of course actionable.

Posted by: pilsener | May 2, 2005 5:58:18 AM

The "fake" hate crime (or should that be fake "hate crime") incident is fascinating. I think it reveals one of the many flaws in the whole concept of hate crime. If hate is not an essential element of a hate crime, then the whole rationale appears even more shaky. On the other hand, classifying something as a hate crime typically adds to the punishment. Perhaps a fake hate crime should simply be punished even more than a normal hate crime....

Posted by: John Rosenberg | May 2, 2005 7:26:25 AM

As others have pointed out, there is a marked distinction between going on walk-about and making false official statements to aid and abet your walk-about. This distinction has generally been the dividing line between prosecution. Like the girl a few years back who perpetrated the bomb scare on the cruise ship, once you choose to involve the authorities they should stay involved, for good or ill, until the situation resolves to one of misunderstanding or misintent.

On a side note, while I'm not a fan of the victim culture, I couldn't help but think about the poor fiancé who, in the face of Scott Peterson et. al. was immediately cast as a murder suspect by many. If nothing else, she deserves a whacking for being such an ass to all those other people.

Posted by: submandave | May 2, 2005 8:01:01 AM

Punishment is needed, if only to keep others from jumping on the bandwagon. But as for what the punishment should be, I like the idea of tabulating the total hours of all involved, including volunteers. The miscreatent then should be offered a plea deal where she could provide community service equal to the hours tabulated or face the possibility of some jail time and monetary fine. Service time would have to be done a minimum of 8 hours per week for a fully employed individual and more for part-time or unemployed. 500 hours of service is 62.5 days of work. That would leave a mark!

Posted by: Maddog | May 2, 2005 11:52:12 AM

Agree with Maddog excluding the volunteers. Community service and a fine, total adding up to the amount expended by official services in finding her.

Posted by: Rollerball | May 2, 2005 3:26:46 PM

"The "faked" racial incident wasn't "faked" in the sense that the other crimes were faked--the perpetrator really did commit (if the facts as alleged are true) a hate crime against a third party. It isn't a case where someone has falsely claimed to be victimized, but a case where someone has truly victimized another person, but done it without the typical expected motivation."

(comment 1, by Thomas)

Very well stated, but I'm afraid I have to disagree with the very last part regarding "the typical expected motivation". Hate crime hoaxes have become so common that when you hear about a "hate crime" like the threats against the black students in Illinois it is quite reasonable to expect a hoax. Anyone who finds this unreasonable needs to Google "hate crime hoax" or similar terms.

Posted by: MinistryOfSillyWalks | May 3, 2005 12:17:56 AM

What if you, for instance, create a fake organization and some people fall for it? There was recently a fake medical journal that the MSM fell for. And, I've contributed a few items to the canon as well. None of those solicit money or involve crimes, but it seems like you're starting down a slippery slope that could lead to fairly innocent hoaxes being implicated as well.

Posted by: The Lonewacko Blog | May 3, 2005 12:03:10 PM

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