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Court of Appeals Divided Over Admissibility of Prior False Allegation

March 14, 2022

Despite the disagreement in the opinion, the Court ultimately affirmed the ruling of the trial court as well as the defendant’s molestation conviction.

In Vallejo v. State, the Court of Appeals issued a whole court opinion in which the majority found that the trial court did not err in excluding evidence of a prior false allegation of child molestation made by the alleged victim. The Court found that the defense did not sufficiently establish that the prior allegation was, in fact, false.

The defendant was charged with the offenses of child molestation and aggravated child molestation as a result of allegations made by his girlfriend’s daughter. At trial, the defense sought to introduce evidence that the girl had previously made a false allegation of molestation against her father.

A pretrial motion to introduce the prior false allegation was filed and an evidentiary hearing was held by the trial court. At that hearing, the defense presented testimony from a police investigator who provided details about the case and the decision not to prosecute. He testified that while the girl made several spontaneous statements in the forensic interview regarding the alleged abuse, there was also a “red flag” raised concerning questioning and possible coaching by the girl’s mother prior to the interview. The investigator testified that while the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute the case, the prosecutors did not believe that the girl was lying.

The girl’s former stepmother testified at the hearing that the girl showed no signs of being uncomfortable around her father. She testified that she never saw any inappropriate interactions between the two of them and that the girl was increasingly spending more and more time with them. She stated that in the weeks prior to the allegation, the girl indicated a desire to come live with them but that her mother said it would never happen – suggesting a possible motive for a false allegation.

The trial court found that the evidence presented only a possibility that the prior allegation was false and denied the defense’s motion to introduce it at trial. The trial court noted that the standard is whether the evidence establishes a “reasonable probability of falsity” as opposed to the mere possibility of falsity that was established at the hearing.

The Opinion of the Majority

On appeal, the defendant argued that the evidence presented at the hearing established a reasonably probability of falsity. He argued that the girl’s mother had a motive to coach her daughter to make this allegation in order to keep her from going to live with her father.

The majority disagreed, finding that the trial court was properly able to credit the testimony of the investigator who stated that they did not believe the girl was lying. The Court also emphasized that the decision not to prosecute an accusation is not evidence that it is false.

Addressing the dissenting opinion in the case, the majority found that even though the Georgia Supreme Court had overruled its prior precedent (Smith v. State) when it issued its opinion in Burns v. State, the rule regarding the threshold finding of probability of falsity is still good law.

Smith v. State: Constitutional Holding Versus its Evidentiary Holding

Judge Gobeil wrote a separate concurring opinion to elaborate further on why the “probability of falsity requirement” survived as a result of the decision in Burns.

In Burns, the Court noted that it was only overruling the constitutional holding of Smith that held that prior false allegations should always be admissible if sufficient proof of falsity exists. It noted that the evidentiary holding, that such evidence is not barred by the Rape Shield statute, is still valid law. The question then becomes whether the proof of falsity requirement is part of the constitutional holding or the evidentiary holding.

Judge Gobeil reasoned that this requirement is part of the evidentiary holding because a trial court has to make the determination of falsity – which is an evidentiary ruling.

The Dissenting Opinion

Judge McFadden dissented and found that the decision in Burns completely overruled Smith v. State and, therefore, did away with the requirement that the defense show a reasonable probability of falsity prior to introduction of the evidence.

He quoted language from Burns in which the Supreme Court stated that trial courts “should decide the admissibility of false allegation evidence by ‘applying the familiar and usual rules of evidence,’” referring to Rule 403’s test as to whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs any prejudicial effect.

Judge McFadden also pointed out that the defendant actually sought to introduce this evidence on two separate grounds. First, that it was a false allegation. Second, that if it was actually true, this would be evidence that could show the alleged victim’s prior knowledge of sexual acts. He suggested that the case should be remanded to consider this second ground for admission that was not fully or correctly considered by the trial court.

Despite the disagreement in this lengthy opinion, the Court ultimately affirmed the ruling of the trial court and the defendant’s molestation conviction.

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