It's clear that you can be prosecuted for the things you do, but can you be prosecuted for something you fail to do as well? Suppose you're a witness to a crime, and you don't report it to the police. Will fear or reluctance to get involved result in criminal charges?
In most states, mere failure to report a crime isn't a crime itself. Your state may have exceptions to that general rule. Whether you have to report may depend on whether you are a mandated reporter or on the circumstances of what you know. This article will discuss a number of instances in which failing to report a crime could expose you to criminal liability.
State Laws: Failure to Report Crime
In most states, the law does not require citizens to report all criminal acts they witness or suspect. For example, you may observe a speeding car or a pedestrian jaywalking across a city street. It may not be practical or necessary for citizens to report every infraction they see.
Most laws in this area focus on knowledge or suspicion of serious crimes such as the commission of a felony. Sometimes, a witness may fear reprisal for making a report. The law will often make an exception in such circumstances, yet several states have specific laws that make failure to report certain crimes a criminal offense.
Failure to Report a Felony Offense
In Ohio, failure to report a felony crime is itself a crime. The Ohio Revised Code says any person who has knowledge that another person committed or is committing a felony must report it to law enforcement. Failure to do so is a fourth-degree misdemeanor and subjects an offender to up to 30 days' jail time, a $250 fine, or both.
The Ohio statute also prohibits failing to report a computer crime. A person treating a sick or injured person can be charged with a crime if they negligently fail to report to law enforcement a gunshot, stab wound, or other serious physical harm from a violent offense. These latter crimes are second-degree misdemeanors and subject an offender to up to 90 days' jail time, a $750 fine, or both. Ohio also makes it illegal for medical service providers to fail to report burn wounds to the local fire or arson investigator or law enforcement.
Under Texas law, it is a crime to fail to report an observed offense that results in serious bodily injury or death. This "fail to report" statute provides that anyone who witnesses such a crime and has reason to believe it has not been reported must immediately tell law enforcement or a peace officer. If the witness to the crime believes making the report will put them at immediate risk of serious physical harm or death, the law provides an exception. This crime is a Class A misdemeanor. If convicted, an offender can face up to one year in county jail, a fine of $4,000, or both.
Failure to Report Crimes Against Children
California state law makes it a crime to fail to report a reasonable belief that any of the following crimes have occurred to a victim under 14 years old:
- Sexual abuse that occurred by force, violence, duress, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury to the child or another
This California Penal Code offense provides exceptions for members of the family of a victim or felony offender, either by blood or marriage. It also excepts those who fail to report based on a reasonable mistake of fact or reasonable safety fears for the reporter and their family.
Other State Laws
More common in state-level criminal law are statutes with a higher standard than failing to report. A hallmark of laws on obstruction of justice is the requirement of an overt act assisting the perpetrator.
For example, both California and Georgia have laws that prohibit concealing a death. In California, there is a specific law against actively concealing or attempting to conceal any accidental death. Conviction for the California offense is a misdemeanor that exposes the offender to up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
In Georgia, the law prohibits concealing a death or hindering the discovery of whether the person was unlawfully killed. Conviction for the Georgia offense is a felony that exposes the offender to up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
Take a look at your state's penal code, or consult with a criminal defense lawyer to determine whether your state has a failure to report law. You can also discuss the option of making an anonymous report to law enforcement.
Federal Law: Misprision of Felony
Under federal law, a person who knows that a felony crime occurred and remains quiet can potentially face criminal charges. The federal offense called "misprision of felony" appears in 18 U.S.C. section 4. U.S. Code says the offense includes the following elements:
- Evidence exists that a principal offender committed a felony crime.
- The misprision offender had direct knowledge of the crime.
- The misprision offender failed to notify law enforcement.
- The misprision offender took an affirmative act to conceal the felony crime.
Accessory After the Fact Laws
While failing to report a crime is one thing, helping to conceal a crime is another. A person can generally be charged with accessory after the fact, or aiding and abetting, if they weren't actually present during the commission of a crime but took actions to conceal the crime or help a perpetrator avoid capture. Such accomplice liability exists in both state and federal law. It can have serious consequences.
For example, hiding a weapon that was used in a robbery will probably make you an accessory after the fact under the laws of most states, even if you took no part in the actual robbery. Accomplice liability often mirrors the criminal liability of the principal offender. So if the principal offender commits robbery, a felony offense, then the accessory offender will also face a felony offense.
Mandatory Reporting Laws
Most states have mandatory reporting laws requiring certain people to report crimes committed against children. These "mandatory reporters" may include parents, teachers, school administrators, police officers, clergy, medical professionals, therapists, social workers, and others. In some states, however, anyone who believes child abuse or neglect is taking place must report it.
Once a mandatory reporter witnesses or finds evidence of child abuse or neglect, they have a legal duty to report the incident to child protective services or law enforcement authorities. That usually includes sharing essential details about the incident, such as the names of the victim and perpetrator. This permits professionals to investigate the matter and to pursue charges for violent crimes and other criminal activity. The failure of a mandated reporter to make a report of suspected child abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor offense in most states.
Many states also require certain professionals and staff at long-term nursing care facilities to report elder abuse to law enforcement or adult protective services.
California law requires healthcare practitioners to report to police when they treat a patient with physical injuries from a firearm or physical injuries they suspect were the result of a number of crimes involving assaultive or abusive conduct. This includes suspected domestic violence.
Not all mandatory reports must be directed toward the police. For example, Ohio law requires certain medical and healthcare professionals to report suspected domestic violence by noting it in the patient's records.
The absence of a state law mandating a report should not discourage citizens from voluntarily reporting illegal behavior. For example, advocates against drunk driving have made a concerted effort to encourage citizens to report suspected impaired drivers to the police. Local law enforcement can provide tips on how to safely report a DUI you observe on the roadway. The more information you can provide, the more likely it is that authorities can intercede and prevent a tragedy.
Charged With Failure to Report a Crime? Get Legal Help
There are several instances in which remaining silent and failing to report a crime to authorities can have negative consequences for you. From mandatory reporting laws to becoming an accessory after the fact, understanding your legal duties may not be easy.
If you've been accused of failing to report a criminal offense, you may have defenses and other options. Consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney in your area to develop a client relationship that will allow you to discuss the specific facts of your case and receive legal advice on how to proceed.