Plausible Deniability

Definition - What does Plausible Deniability mean?

Plausible deniability is the ability of an individual, generally one of high rank or position, to deny that they had information about activities committed by others in a business, organization or government, which led to abuse or illegal actions.

In common law, the term is often applied to situations where sexual intercourse is the basis of the breach of law. Examples of plausible deniability being used in these cases include when a man is arrested for being in the company of a woman that is known to be a prostitute by law enforcement. It is common for the man to attempt to avoid being charged for breaching the law by stating that he did not know that the woman he was with was in fact a prostitute. If he can prove that this is true, then he would be able to avoid being charged with any crime.

Likewise, when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman whom he later finds out is underage, he may be able to avoid being charged with statutory rape if there was a reasonable belief that the man really did not know that the woman was underage. He could prove this through showing that the woman misrepresented her age to him and if the woman did not bear a resemblance to a minor (if she looked older than she was). However, the bar is set high for proof of this since the courts believe that many people charged with statutory rape would use this as a defense if they could.

Justipedia explains Plausible Deniability

The goal of plausible deniability is to allow a person to shift the blame onto other participants who were involved in the potentially illegal or immoral actions. Plausible deniability often allows a party, which may actually be partly responsible for the actions, to insulate themselves from any legal or civil penalties.

For example, civil penalties may be assessed if the injured party proves their case through a preponderance of evidence. Criminal charges may be assessed if the state proves the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. By asserting plausible deniability, however, the accused may provide a credible denial, and the government or an injured party may lack the evidence to pursue legal action against the accused.

The notion of plausible deniability has existed for ages, but the term was not penned until the 1960s by the CIA. Under the notion of “plausible deniability,” the CIA created loose and informal power structures and chains of command to shield high-ranking officials from blowback from controversial covert operations.

More recently, however, updated laws and company doctrines now discourage using plausible deniability to shield high-ranking officials or business leaders from blame. Now, whether or not the actions of a party are intentional, pre-planned or due to willful ignorance, many officials and leaders find this defense less successful. In fact, many leaders now find that they are often held accountable for the actions of their subordinates.

The public has also become less forgiving when high-ranking officials or business leaders use this as a defense to shield themselves from blame. Some argue that using this tactic can make those in charge look as if they have lost control, ultimately exposing a business to additional costs and risks.

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