Runaway Bride - A Criminal?

So, the missing bride-to-be has been found, and it turns out that she, as some suspected, had merely run away, and was not abducted. Police said there would be no criminal charges, despite the fact that Jennifer Wilbanks had called to report that she had been abducted.

Frankly, it kind of surprises me that she is not being charged with falsely reporting an incident. I'm fairly certain that if the same incident occurred in my jurisdiction, she would have been. In fact, I've seen it in cases that have wasted much less in terms of police time and resources. It seems as though everyone is taking the "we're just glad she's alive" approach.

But should criminal charges be brought? I think the answer is yes. She wasted not just hours, but days of police officers' and volunteers' time. I don't know, but it's possible that drivers of blue vans were stopped unnecessarily as part of the investigation. Her fiance was considered a suspect and even took a lie detector test. Had she never shown up, it's possible that he could've faced serious charges.

Perhaps most importantly, though, I think that many laws are written because our legislature takes the approach of "What if everyone did that?" For example, it might not be so bad for you, individually, to litter from time to time. But it's a crime because if everyone - all 290-something million of us - litter from time to time, we'll be walking around in a trash heap. Likewise, it might not be so bad if you, individually, shoplifted just a little something when you couldn't afford to pay for it. But if everyone did it, businesses would likely close down.

The same goes for falsely reporting an abduction. If everyone did it, we would eventually reach a point where police wouldn't investigate abduction reports. Moreover, each year, thousands of adults and children are reported missing - how would you feel if you knew your loved one's investigation was put on hold while the police chased down a bride with cold feet?

That said, what is a fair punishment? I think it depends on a person's record (and certainly someone who commits this crime more than once should be dealt with more harshly), but I think that she owes some community service to the community who put so much effort into searching for her. Maybe she could volunteer at a search center to see what these families go through, and to repay her debt.

In the end, I think that this woman will end up living with a lot of shame for what she did to her family, friends, and this community. But if feeling shameful were enough to avoid criminal prosecution, I have many clients who should have their charges dropped.


  1. As a non-lawyer, I don't know that the runaway bride could rationally be charged with the false reporting.

    From what little attention I've paid, the report didn't come until the end of the vanishing. If this is so, then the monies to search for her had been expended by the time she surfaced, and her false report didn't stand up to much scrutiny, or cause additional work.

    If, on the other hand, she reported the "abduction" at the start, then she should be charged, and forced to do communtiy service along with paying a portion of the cost for the unnecessary search. Or maybe flogging would be a good option. Maybe beating stupid self-centered people would work better than fines and humiliation.

    But if she just ran away without telling anyone, that really should be a non-crime.

    Of course, her ex-fiance [if he's using his upper brain] may want to sue for the costs of the lawyer and any other expenses from his being the focus as the expected murderer in the case.

  2. But she must have known that people would be looking for her - why else did she cut her hair and buy a bus ticket under an assumed name? And if she's ever watched the news, she must have known that her fiance would be suspect #1 (ala Lori Hacking and Laci Peterson).

    And I think that whether the false phone call came at the beginning or the end of the search, what matters is that she made it. In the crime of falsely reporting an incident, there's no required element that the police relied on it in launching an investigation.

  3. I agree. It's really too bad that she had cold feet, but she wasted a lot of valuable time that could have been used elsewhere.

    I also think that you're right that perhaps the circumstances don't warrant jail time or anything as extreme like that, but by making her volunteer at a search center (or something like that) would not only give her a good sense of what her family must have been going though, but also serve to make it clear to other people who might be contemplating the same sort of thing that it won't be tolerated.

  4. Other than falsely reporting an abduction in New Mexico, what other crimes fit? What crime did she commit in Georgia? Here in Pennsylvania, simply disappearing on purpose isn't a crime. She didn't tell anyone to look for her.

    Had she planted some evidence to suggest that her disappearance was due to foul play, it would be a different matter.

    Civil action to recoup search expenses? She never asked for a search. I can't think of any civil cause of action.

  5. It sounds like she just left without telling anyone. That's not a nice thing to do, but it's not a crime. She didn't ask for all the searching.

    As for reporting an abduction, my impression is that she made that up so she would appear to be a victim instead of a flighty, panicky, brainless twit who ran away from her wedding. Obviously, it didn't have the desired effect.

    (Ever had a client who was on the street carrying something illegal who decided the best way to hide his guilt was to be real super-friendly to any cops passing by?)

    Sure she broke the law, but they caught it quick. Lets not waste even more time by charging her.

    (Fear of endlessly annoying televised trials is making me soft on crime. I hope Michael Jackson is found not guilty just so they can't cover the appeal.)

    Her fiance, I'm convinced, would be best off not suing so as to avoid speculation by agenda-driven pundits as to how terrible a person he must have been to drive her to do that...

  6. trolluminationMay 02, 2005 12:17 AM

    In my view - and I admit this is a totally utilitarian attitude - the punishment for false accusations should be a slap on the wrist. There has to be some incentive for a person filing a false accusation not to go through with it. A person who viciously and untruthfully reports an abduction or other crime against them, and who would face a serious prison term for being found guilty of filing this false report, is likely to be scared into keeping up the pretense long after the momentary impulse to file the false report has dissipated - and conviction of an innocent is a likely result.

    So, although it seems morally incorrect, I believe that the right thing is to allow the filer of a false report to recant without any serious penalty - the penalty must be so light, in fact, that it is less of a pain in the ass than testifying as lead witness would be. Just as how, for example, robbing a store should carry a smaller penalty than killing everyone in it - there must always be a graduated schedule of punishments for justice to be served, must always be an incentive not to go through to the next level of criminality.

  7. Another important point is how does this guy continue to stay in a relationship with her? It's clear that there are some issues with her. I felt like I was getting cold feet before I got married but I never considered "abduction."

  8. What crime did she commit in Georgia? Someone asked the same thing on my blog. One thing that comes to mind is, since she used a telephone to make the call, perhaps it could be a federal case. Don't cite me for that proposition, but I don't think it's a crazy thought.

  9. What a surprise. A pretty, young, white woman is much less likey to get charged with a crime than other people. I'd be willing to bet she never gets speeding tickets either.

  10. I was ambivalent but leaning toward favoring criminal charges for this woman...
    and then I just found out today that, while she was lying about being kidnapped, she said she was abducted by a Hispanic man. Now I'm sure that I want her to be charged.

  11. Regarding the false report of a crime, it could only be prosecuted in New Mexico. She didn't call the Duluth (Georgia) people and say she'd been kidnapped. She called 911, local police.

    In any event, the Duluth police department is considering suing her ass for 30-40k. It's all quite ridiculous.

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  13. Well, I don't know about what Stopher said since I'm a pretty, young, white woman and I've been pulled over six times and gotten five speeding tickets. The only one I got out of was when I was in my military uniform. I can agree that if she had been a poor minority woman the media probably wouldn't have glommed onto it like they did.

    That being said, this woman, unless she has been living on MARS, had to have known that when she disappeared, in the post-Laci-Peterson world, people would not only look, but her fiance would be suspected, her family would go through hell, and the police would be pulled away from legitimate crimes to look for her dumb ass. I'm not sure what crimes she may or may not have committed (since being a total moron isn't a crime apparently), but I am all for her being charged with something.

    Her behavior caused a foreseeable result...she had to have known she couldn't just walk away from her 600 person country club wedding and have no one think twice. She bought a bus ticket (reportedly a week in advance), cut her hair (who takes scissors running?), and headed out cross country. She's not a victim, her family and friends are...and the cops who wasted their time, and the taxpayers who have to subsidize her stupidity and immature decision-making.

  14. That being said, this woman, unless she has been living on MARS, had to have known that when she disappeared, in the post-Laci-Peterson world, people would not only look...

    Huh? The post-Laci-Peterson world is not her fault, and it's unrealistic to expect people to consider the possibility of a media feeding frenzy while conducting their daily lives. People disappear every day for all kinds of reasons and we almost never see this kind of nuttiness.

    It's not a crime to drop out of touch with your family and friends, no matter how much it upsets them. If the police draw some unfortunate conclusions, that's not a crime either.

    (Of course, this doesn't mean she's not an inconsiderate dumbass. All she had to do was drop into any police station, identify herself, and tell them that her disappearance is voluntary and that she doesn't want people to be told where she is.)

    I'm not sure what crimes she may or may not have committed (since being a total moron isn't a crime apparently), but I am all for her being charged with something.

    Sigh. Although harmless in a blogger, I just hate it when prosecutors start thinking that way. They say that if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. I guess if all you have is a grand jury, everything starts to look like a felony.

    (Just to be clear, it's her vanishing act I'm talking about here. Her later filing of a false police report is much more of a problem.)

  15. Don't worry Mark, I may only be a harmless blogger now, but I'm drinking milk and going to law school and one day I'll be a real-live lawyer where I'm sure that any job I choose to do would meet with your derision.

  16. Hey spatula, I like lawyers, and I agree with most of what you said. I just disagree with your opinion on whether she deserves to be charged for the ruckus she caused by disappearing. I think what she did should fall into the stupid-and-annoying-but-not-criminal category. (Actual laws may differ with my opinions: I'm not a lawyer.)

    I also used your comment as a launching point for a cheap shot at prosecutors who search for creative ways to interpret the laws to fit some situation that upsets them. I mentioned the harmlessness of blogging in an attempt to acknowledge that you were expressing an opinion, not filing charges yourself. No derision was intended.

    (Maybe I should stop commenting here, as my tone seems to be a bit off-putting lately.)

  17. Hey Energy Spatula. If you're in the military why didn't you show your military ID. I cannot believe a cop gave you a ticket with one unless you were speeding with a small child strapped to your front bumper. My military friends have strangely never received any tickets since they obtained theirs. I myself must rely on PBA cards. They work pretty much the same. If you are a pretty, young, white woman, are you free this weekend?

  18. I'm not currently in the military, I was an Air Force officer for four years and now I'm a second year law student. That being said, 4 out of the 6 times I was pulled over were while I was on Active Duty, and 3 out of the 4 times I received a ticket. Apparently I just get the cops that don't much care about my military ID (also, whether I showed it or not, there was a sticker on my car, and in military cities all the cops know what those stickers are and what the different colors stand for). Like I said, the only time I got out of it was when I was actually IN uniform. A military ID is unfortunately not the magic cure-all one might think.

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  20. Must be different around here because I've seen the magic work firsthand. I'm not saying I agree with it or that it's right but when you live in a crazy world you have to play by the rules. In fact, just last week a guy much like myself found himself saved by a PBA card.

  21. Yeah, the last couple were in Texas (the one I got out of was in Alabama)...a place I would think a pretty girl with a nice smile and a military ID would be able to talk her way out of a ticket. But no. Not in San Antonio. Not in Houston. Nope.

  22. That kind of explains it. My Dad lives in TX and from what I hear a lot of these towns were getting in trouble because too large a part of their revenue was comming from out of town fines. Basically they're trying to free load off the rest of the area instead of charging what they need in property taxes. I hear it was getting so out of hand in TX that they had to pass legislation against it.

  23. Well, I don't live in TX anymore, and I don't have a car anymore, so this problem is kind of solved for me. Maybe by the time I get out of law school and get a car all the tickets will be off my record.