Brian Gottstein is a libertarian who believes in very limited government and a great deal of individual freedom coupled with personal responsibility. He runs a political consulting, public relations and marketing firm in Roanoke. He has worked closely with Roanoke Mayor Ralph Smith on his election team and throughout his mayoral tenure. Gottstein managed for Alice Hincker's 2004 Republican mayoral bid in Roanoke, as well as Wendy Jones' council candidacy.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Better protecting the falsely accused

By Brian Gottstein

It is frightening that someone can falsely accuse you of a crime. You could spend time in jail, spend your savings on attorney’s fees, lose your job, or have your reputation harmed in your community before your innocence is revealed.

Everything should be done to prevent such an injustice from happening, but even the simplest preventative measure is being ignored by Virginia’s court officials.

Under current practice, an anonymous person can go to the local magistrate this morning, swear out a warrant for your arrest with no proof of a crime, and then disappear into the ether. By this afternoon, you could be in jail while your anonymous accuser is in a car bound for vacation.

The recent case of a Roanoke man, arrested because of a false warrant sworn out by a former girlfriend accusing him of raping her, shows how the current warrant system can be abused by people seeking revenge. She used a fake name. Her identity was never verified. He was arrested. She likely won’t be prosecuted because there wasn’t enough evidence that she was the one who swore out the warrant.

Frivolous warrants, a.k.a. "spite warrants," are warrants sought out of revenge or maliciousness rather than a real injury.

According to a recent Roanoke Times article by Tad Dickens, Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell predicts that every day the court docket in Roanoke has at least one case with a warrant sworn out for what he calls “less-than-pristine motives."

One of the most frightening parts of this issue is that local magistrates in Virginia are not even required by law to get proper identification from the accuser when he or she requests the arrest warrant. This is ample encouragement for abuse of the system: A person who doesn’t like you can swear out a warrant, falsely accusing you of a serious crime, and then use a fake name so he or she won’t get caught.

Obtaining false warrants is punishable by criminal and civil charges. Unfortunately, according to Caldwell, there isn’t enough money in the budget to prosecute those who file false charges, and he says it’s hard to prove perjury in many cases.

Some magistrates don’t even ask for identification, while others use the excuse that someone running away from a crime may have only the clothes on his or her back and no ID. That may be true, but are the magistrates telling us that they have no way of positively identifying an accuser when he or she is swearing to something that is so serious it could ruin another person’s life?

The state government has our tax records, our criminal records, records of where we live and when we move, and photo ID records from the Department of Motor Vehicles’ computers at their disposal, and yet they say there is no way to positively ID the accuser?

Well, then, how does the arresting officer with the warrant positively ID the accused before arresting him? If the accused is smart, then he should just say, “No, I am not the John Smith you are looking to arrest. I am John Jones. I don’t have any ID on me, so you can’t prove otherwise. Have a nice day.”

Of course, we all believe that crime victims should have an easy and accessible way to report crimes and to get alleged perpetrators into police custody before they can harm anyone else. I am not diminishing the plights of those victims, nor am I sticking up for the truly guilty.

But the state and its agents have a responsibility to do all they can to verify the veracity of the claim, and that includes what would seem like an easy process of verifying the identity and address of the accuser, so she can be held accountable if she falsely reports a crime.

Regardless of “budget constraints,” the state also has a responsibility to prosecute those who commit fraud and attempt to ruin the lives of others using an already overburdened court system to do it.

These common sense measures could prevent many of these incidents from happening and save individuals from being falsely accused and losing their jobs, their families, their reputations. These measures would also keep law enforcement officers on the streets fighting crime rather than chasing down phony leads. And they would save taxpayers the cost of jailing, feeding, and prosecuting the innocent.

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