false pretense | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the criminal law context, false pretense refers to a type of fraud in which a person intentionally and knowingly makes false or misleading representations to another person in order to induce that person to part with money, property, or something else of value.

False pretense is a crime involving deceit and misrepresentation. The legal term means when someone knowingly and deliberately presents false information to someone else. The aim is to convince the other person to give up something of value, like money or property. The individual who falls for the false pretense is often unaware of the deceit until it’s too late. They believe the information is true and act based on that.

The Core Elements of False Pretense

Let’s dive deeper into the three key components of this crime.

1. Intentional Misrepresentation

The first requirement is that the person committing false pretense knowingly and purposely gives false information. They don’t accidentally or unknowingly lie – they do so with full knowledge that their statements are untrue. For example, a used car dealer may knowingly tell a customer that a car is new when it’s not.

2. Inducing Action

The second requirement is that the person lied to must take some action based on the lie. They must do something they would not have done if they knew the truth. In the car example, the customer might buy the car based on the false information that it’s new.

3. Loss of Value

Lastly, the action taken by the person deceived must lead to a loss of value. This can be money, property, or anything else of value. In the example, the customer loses money by buying a used car at the price of a new one.

Examples of False Pretense

False pretense is not just about outright lies. It can also involve leaving out important details or twisting the truth. For instance, someone selling a house might not mention that it has a termite problem. Or, they may claim to have a degree they don’t have to get a high-paying job. All these are examples of false pretense.

The Legal Perspective

Legally, false pretense is considered a type of fraud. To prove someone guilty of this crime, the prosecution must show that the defendant intentionally lied. They must also show that the victim acted based on this lie and suffered a loss. If proven, the penalties can be severe, often involving fines, prison time, or both.

Model Penal Code Elements of False Pretense

The Model Penal Code (MPC), a guideline used to help shape criminal law in the United States, offers a comprehensive view of the crime of false pretense. In the context of MPC, false pretense incorporates a few crucial components that define the nature and characteristics of the offense.

      1. Deception and Falsification: The MPC states that the accused must knowingly create or reinforce a false impression to deceive others. This includes preventing others from acquiring information that would affect their judgment about a transaction.
      2. Purpose of Deception: The deception must be carried out with the intention of defrauding another person. That means the individual committing the crime intends to cheat the other party to gain undue advantage, often monetary or property-related.
      3. Reliance on False Information: For a crime to be considered false pretense under the MPC, the victim must act upon the false information. This means that the false pretense must be effective in causing the victim to part with their property or money.
      4. Property Transfer: There must be a loss or potential loss. The deceived party should have transferred the ownership, or at least custody, of their property, based on the misrepresentation.

In essence, the MPC views false pretense as a form of theft by deception. If the accused knowingly created or reinforced a false impression with the intent to defraud, and the victim, acting upon this deception, parted with their property, then the crime of false pretense has been committed, according to the MPC. The seriousness of the offense and the resulting penalty can vary based on the value of property or money obtained under false pretenses.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 01/10/2023


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