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Criminal Law Blog

Can I be arrested based on just hearsay?

Posted by Mattie Fore | Aug 28, 2020

My clients are often surprised that they can be arrested and charged with a crime based only on the word of another person. In fact, jurors are often surprised by this as well when they find themselves called upon to evaluate the truth of allegations against my clients. Yes, you can be arrested based only on the word of another. I often hear my clients refer to the verbal claim of another person as "hearsay" or "he said, she said." They are shocked and upset that someone can make up a story about what they did and have them arrested. A police officer needs only probable cause to make an arrest and a person claiming to be victimized is often the only evidence an officer has when making an arrest. There need not be visible injuries or other physical evidence of a crime in order for an officer to arrest you. However, this type of case can ultimately make for weak evidence. 

For example, during a verbal argument with your girlfriend, your girlfriend calls the police and says you hit her. Your girlfriend has no physical injuries and there are no witnesses to a physical fight. The investigating officer might decide he has probable cause to arrest you because your girlfriend's story sounds believable to the officer. You can be arrested for battery based only on your girlfriend's word that you hit her or "he said, she said"--she says you hit her and maybe you tell the officer that you did not hit her. If your relationship with your girlfriend is "domestic" because you have ever lived together or share a child in common, the officer will feel the need to make an arrest. This is because the decision not to make an arrest for domestic violence must be justified in the police report. But even if you are arrested, being found guilty and convicted of a battery under these circumstances is quite another matter. 

To lawyers and judges, actual "hearsay" is a bit different from what people call "he said, she said." Hearsay is not just what another person says you did, but rather their statements repeated by another person (or played from a recording) in a courtroom. For instance, if an officer repeats your girlfriend's verbal accusation in court, this would be improper because it is hearsay. The officer did not witness you hit your girlfriend, but rather your girlfriend told him that you hit her. Only your girlfriend, or another person who witnessed the crime, can make this statement in a courtroom. It would be improper for a judge to let an officer testify in court that your girlfriend told the officer you hit your girlfriend because that would be hearsay and hearsay is usually not admissible in court as evidence. 

Your girlfriend may come to court and testify that you hit her. This would be the proper way for the prosecutor to present evidence in the case. It may be the only evidence the prosecutor has that a battery occurred at all. Yes, a witness's testimony is evidence and can be the only evidence in a case. But no prosecutor really wants to be in this position. This is because a jury is often expecting more than just "he said, she said" as the evidence in a criminal prosecution. It is possible to be convicted of battery in a case like this, but only if the witness's testimony is convincing. What seems convincing to one juror may not seem so convincing to another juror. A stronger case of battery could be made if there were some other facts pointing toward guilt. Did you flee the scene before police arrived? Was the apartment where the argument took place in disarray, as if a fight took place? Is there a 911 call during which your girlfriend is crying or screaming in terror? If not, the case may depend only on how trustworthy your girlfriend's testimony in court seems to the jury.

Under these circumstances, a lawyer should challenge the credibility of the witness's testimony. If the witness said one thing to the 911 operator and something different to the police officer who arrived, this would tend to discredit the witness's testimony. If the witness claims you beat her "black and blue" but the police officer cannot find a mark on her, this would show she exaggerated or fabricated the claim of battery. If your girlfriend has been convicted of a felony 9 times, your lawyer can make sure the jury knows that and ask the jury to conclude her testimony is not trustworthy. If your girlfriend is very angry at you because she believes you have been dating other women, this suggests she has a motive to lie about you hitting her and can be used to impeach (challenge) her credibility.

An allegation of battery can harm your reputation and disrupt your life. But a battery without injury is a misdemeanor in Florida. What about a far more serious crime based only on the word of another? Sex crimes against children are very often based on a child's words and nothing more. This is another "he said, she said" situation. Anyone who spends much time around children under 7 years old knows they are sometimes very unreliable sources of information and they are very susceptible to suggestion. However, such an accusation is taken extremely seriously by most people who hear it. It is hard for most people to understand how or why a child could make up a story of molestation. Any teacher, doctor, or daycare provider who hears of such an incident of abuse must report it. A police investigation will often reveal nothing more than a child's statement that someone has touched them inappropriately. Physical evidence is not needed to prove such a crime. There are countless people serving life sentences because a child made such an accusation, whether it is true or not. Even without a confession, physical evidence, or any other witnesses, a jury may convict. After all, when a child is sexually abused, there is often no one else around to witness it and the perpetrator will often not leave physical evidence behind. Because of this, juries are more forgiving of a prosecution's thin case against the accused and often lean toward conviction.

Regardless of the type of charge, be sure you find a lawyer who is a capable and experienced cross-examiner. In a "he said, she said" case, challenging the credibility of the complaining witness is the most important part of your defense. Ask any lawyer with whom you have a consultation how many cases they have tried before a jury. Ask them how many times they have defended a client against a similar charge. A good lawyer will not be offended. You may be afraid of going to trial, but your attorney should not be. Having a lawyer who is not afraid to defend your case and challenge the state's witnesses before a jury will get a better outcome for your case.

About the Author

Mattie Fore

Ms. Fore has been licensed to practice law in the State of Florida since 2009. She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, where she tried and won her first case before a jury as a student of the Criminal Practice Clinic. She is also a graduate of the National Criminal De...

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Mattie Fore Law, LLC is a criminal defense practice which handles all types of felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic offenses in Florida state courts. Ms. Fore will devote the time and attention you and your case deserve in order to achieve the best result possible.