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How do I defend myself from a false sexual assault allegation?

This is a very common and simple question that we are asked. However, the answer is anything but simple. In fact, the first response from a lawyer that is experienced with sexual assault cases should be more questions. Who is making the allegation? Is there a formal complaint filed? With whom was the complaint filed? Have you been contacted by the police? Is there a protection order in place? Is the complaint civil, administrative, or criminal in nature?

Shouldn’t I immediately defend my reputation and deny what happened?

No. It goes without saying that an allegation of sexual assault is a very serious matter for everyone involved. Careers and reputation in the community that took years or decades to build, can be instantly destroyed at the mere mention of a sexual assault allegation. Being falsely accused of any wrongdoing is upsetting. To avoid making errors in choosing how to respond, it’s important to fully understand the complex systems that exist to handle sexual assault allegations.

What are the different venues where a sexual assault allegation can be heard?

A single complaint of sexual assault can cause an accused individual to have to defend themselves in many different courts and across many different legal systems. For example, if a sexual assault allegation was reported on a college campus to a professor or resident director, by law, those individuals are required to report the allegation to the Title IX office. In turn, that allegation will be reported to local police authorities. That’s already two different entities examining the same allegation within two very different legal systems, with very different procedures and outcomes.

In short, one allegation of sexual assault can lead to cases in a 1) civil court as the basis for a civil protection order; 2) criminal court for felony or misdemeanor criminal offenses; and 3) educational or employment investigative agencies that are required by law to resolve sexual harassment claims.

Who can file a sexual assault complaint?

Anyone can. While the law requires certain individuals referred to as “mandatory reporters” (e.g. teachers, coaches, residential life directors and assistants on college campuses) to pass on allegations of sexual assault to designated authorities, at some point the individual claiming that he or she was sexually assaulted will have to file a complaint with the police, a court, or a compliance office like Title IX offices on school campuses.

Typically, these complaints are written documents wherein the accusers write out what they allege happened. At least initially, no medical evidence or other evidence is necessary to file the complaint.

What stops someone from filing a complaint full of false information?

At least to start? Nothing. Of course there are laws prohibiting filing false reports, a person can be prosecuted and convicted of perjury, a student could be suspended for retaliating or abusing the Title IX process. But those all come well after the complaint has been filed, and well after the accused is going to be required to defend him or herself from the false allegation.

What is Title IX, and how is it related to sexual assault allegations?

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sexual harassment. It applies to students and employees of academic institutions that receive federal funding. Title IX has a very broad interpretation of “sexual harassment”; it includes dating violence, stalking, and sexual offenses in addition to quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environments.

Once a Title IX complaint for sexual harassment is filed, the school is obligated to treat the complaint as if it is true and to investigate it. Even if the complaint is complete lies, an investigation will need to occur so long as the complaint alleges something that is covered by Title IX.

Every presidential administration in the last 10 years has added or modified the Title IX regulations in some fashion. Meaning, it’s important that you speak with an attorney that is knowledgeable about the current Title IX procedures. How you reply to the initial Title IX complaint and handle the investigative interviews will have a significant impact on your likelihood of success in beating a false allegation of sexual assault.

If a sexual assault complaint is filed with a school’s compliance office, does that mean the case is limited to punishments within the school like suspension or expulsion?

No.  Most commonly, a police investigation into sex crimes will occur separate from, but at the same time as, an administrative investigation. It is very important to understand that because a Title IX investigation isn’t part of the criminal justice system (i.e. a prosecution), many of the constitutional rights that protect people accused of crime may not apply in Title IX investigations and hearings (e.g. presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt). It is extremely important to speak with an attorney that understands Title IX investigations and hearings before agreeing to speak with a Title IX investigator or responding to the complaint.

You must understand that anything that you say to the Title IX investigator, during the investigation, or at a hearing can be subpoenaed by a prosecutor’s office and used in a criminal proceeding. Having a lawyer by your side that understands the complexities of Title IX and potential criminal and civil liability is crucial to your success.

What is different about a police investigation into sexual assault allegations from other types of investigations that can occur?

The most obvious difference is that criminal prosecutions can end in imprisonment if you are convicted of a sex crime. Convictions for sex offenses can also have extra-judicial sanctions like requirements to register as a sexual offender for some or all of the offender’s life. And all of that is in addition to the social stigma of being labeled a “rapist.”

Because of the severe damage a sex offense criminal conviction can have on your career, family, and life, it’s important to understand your constitutional rights. More importantly, it’s important to understand how to assert your constitutional rights. The police have no legal obligation to be honest with you during an interview or investigation. That’s why it is important to never agree to speak with law enforcement agencies without an experienced lawyer present.

Many times, if a criminal investigation lacks sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime, the police or prosecutor’s offense will tell the accuser about civil remedies.

What is a sexually oriented offense civil protection order?

Under Ohio Revised Code section 2903.214, a person claiming to be a victim of a sexually oriented offense can request a court to issue a civil protection order. A protection order is an emergency order put in place by a judge or magistrate to keep the respondent (the person accused of the wrongdoing) from contacting the petitioner (the person alleging a sexually oriented offense occurred). A violation of a protection order is a criminal offense.

Will I be notified if someone is trying to file a sexually oriented offense civil protection order against me?

Not until afterwards. A petitioner can file an ex parte complaint with the court. In non-legal terms, this means only one person, the accuser, is present in court. The accuser explains to a judge or magistrate why he or she believes a sexually oriented offense occurred and why they need a court order to protect them from the respondent. No other parties are present; this means that the judge will only hear one side of the story.

If a court grants the petitioner’s request for an ex parte order, then the respondent will be served with the protection order and a hearing will be held in 10 to 14 days to determine if a full protection order will be granted. In other words, the respondent will have to defend him or herself in a trial within 10 to 14 days of receiving the ex parte order.

Because protection orders are given out by civil courts, the amount of evidence needed to win your case (i.e. “burden of proof”) is substantially lower than in a criminal prosecution. As long as the petitioner can convince the judge or magistrate that it’s “more likely than not” that a sexually oriented offense occurred, the protection order will be granted. Protection orders can be granted for up to 5 years.

It’s important that you speak with an experienced attorney before the protection order hearing occurs. You cannot have counsel appointed in civil cases, so there are no “civil public defenders” available. And you will be held to the same standards as a trial attorney when you appear for the protection order hearing. Meaning, you need to know the Ohio Civil Rules of Procedure and Ohio Rules of Evidence. It’s also important to understand that anything you say at a civil protection order hearing can be subpoenaed by a prosecutor and used against you in a criminal prosecution.

Could I face all of these types of hearings for sexual assault allegations at the same time?

Yes. Defending against a Title IX investigation, criminal prosecution, and civil protection order can all occur at the same time. While they are all different hearings and processes across different agencies and courts that will be held on different days, they can, and often do, occur concurrently. Meaning, it is important that you speak with an attorney that understands and is experienced in handling all of these different procedures.

And all of this can happen even if the allegations are false?

Yes. Filing a complaint against someone is just the first step, and it is not a particularly difficult process. And once a complaint is filed, an investigation must occur.

Our legal system’s procedure for challenging false allegations is a contested hearing or trial. But that only occurs after the complaint and investigation. Meaning, you will be required to answer and defense against the false allegations before they can be shown to be false.

So, what should I do if someone files a false allegation about me?

Immediately speak with an experienced lawyer. The criminal defense team at Rittgers Rittgers & Nakajima is equipped to fight for you and protect you when these false allegations are made. We have experience with these types of cases and practice throughout southwest Ohio. We have experience defending clients from civil protection orders, and criminal prosecutions in Warren, Butler, Hamilton, Clermont, Montgomery, Greene, Clinton, Preble, Highland, and Brown County. Our Title IX attorneys have defended clients on college campuses all over the state of Ohio. It would be our honor and privilege to fight for you and protect your livelihood, reputation, and freedom. If you are accused of something or need any type of legal assistance, call our 24/7 line at 513-496-0134. Our consultations are free, and we are here for you.