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Supreme Court to Review Admissibility of Prior False Allegations

January 10, 2019

The Georgia Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Burns v. State where the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in excluding evidence that the alleged victim had made a prior false allegation of sexual abuse against someone other than the defendant.

This has the potential to be a major decision affecting the rights of people charged with sex offenses in Georgia and could overturn decades of case law precedent establishing the admissibility of this evidence. The use of this type of evidence is more thoroughly discussed in our post on Georgia Sex Offense Law, Introducing Prior False Accusations by the Alleged Victim.

In its order, the Supreme Court acknowledged that in State v. Smith, 259 Ga. 135 (1989), the Court held that “evidence of prior false allegations by a victim of sexual misconduct is admissible in a criminal case regarding alleged sexual misconduct.”  The issues to be addressed are: (1) Whether the decision in Smith was one of constitutional law or of evidence; (2) If it was one of constitutional law, whether it was correctly decided. If it was an evidentiary ruling, whether it remains good law under the new Evidence Code (from 2013); and (3) Whether evidence of prior false accusations can be excluded when the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighs its probative value.

In Smith, the Supreme Court noted that a majority of the jurisdictions in the country had determined that, with regards to evidence of prior false accusations by the alleged victim, evidentiary rules “must yield to the defendant’s right of confrontation and right to present a full defense.” The Court recognized that the purpose of this evidence is to establish an alleged victim’s “propensity to make false statements regarding sexual misconduct.” Now, the Court is inviting the possibility of second-guessing that decision.

At the conclusion of the Burns decision, the Court of Appeals emphasized that it has reversed several convictions in sex offense cases where the trial court erroneously excluded evidence of prior false allegations made by the alleged victim.  As noted above, this type of evidence is critical to defendants charged with sexual offenses in Georgia as it provides a basis for the jury to understand why and how the alleged victim would make a false allegation in this case.

Hopefully, when this issue is revisited by the Supreme Court, the wisdom of its prior decisions, as well as the decisions in the majority of jurisdictions throughout the country, will prevail. We will keep a close eye on this case and report back once a decision is reached.

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