Are Hoaxes Illegal?
Anyone who’s not a sociopath would agree that it’s cruel to use a fake identity to fool and embarrass another person. But is it illegal? And is it always wrong? The answers depend on who you’re pretending to be and the reason for the impersonation.
It’s illegal to impersonate an actual person in a number of states, but assuming a totally false identity is legal—and it’s a practice that law enforcement has often found useful. Undercover investigators sometimes use false identities to infiltrate a gang, and impersonation is standard practice in prostitution and child predator stings. Sometimes an agency will even ask preteen girls to coach undercover officers in the slang, music, and fads favored by their age group. Those impersonations have consistently withstood legal challenges.
Two recent news stories are again shining a spotlight on legal issues connected with impersonations. In one case, a London nurse thought she was talking to the Queen of England about her daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton—and killed herself when the hoax was revealed. In another case, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o spent months in a long-distance romance with a Stanford student who never actually existed.
The London story began when Kate Middleton (wife of Prince William, heir to the British throne) was hospitalized for morning sickness. Two Australian radio hosts called the hospital and fooled nurse Jacintha Saldanha into thinking she was talking to royalty. Saldanha subsequently committed suicide, and the British public was outraged when the prank was revealed. Investigators discovered that Saldanha had a history of emotional problems, including two previous suicide attempts. No charges were filed against the pranksters.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is widely viewed as a victim in the story of Lennay Kekua, the girlfriend-who-never-existed. But criminal charges are unlikely unless prosecutors decide to focus on the photo given to Te’o: It depicts an actual person and apparently was used without her permission—a clear violation of impersonation laws. It’s a confusing case, with some observers noting that Te’o never attempted to visit his “girlfriend” after she was supposed to have survived a serious automobile accident. How seriously was he involved in that “relationship”?
Legal experts say that the US Constitution protects even untruths and impersonations. For example, the Supreme Court recently struck down the 2005 Stolen Valor Act, which made it illegal to sell or wear fake military medals. Free speech issues created problems for prosecutors in a case involving Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who killed herself because she thought a teenage boy was taunting her online. The “boy” turned out to be an adult neighbor, and the case ended in a conviction that was overturned on appeal.
We can expect this wrong-but-not-illegal conundrum to continue to plague prosecutors unless Americans decide to overturn the First Amendment—an extremely unlikely scenario.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.