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Etan Patz Case: When Must You Report a Confession?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

The disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 may be solved, as a New Jersey man has allegedly confessed to Patz's murder. Pedro Hernandez, 51, reportedly told relatives he had "done a bad thing and killed a child," The New York Times reports.

On the 33rd anniversary of the boy's disappearance, prosecutors on Friday charged Hernandez with 2nd-degree murder.

One of Hernandez's family members called police with that tip a few weeks ago, though Hernandez apparently had been making the claims for decades, New York City's police commissioner said.

So can Hernandez's relatives, or anyone in a similar situation, face legal trouble for failing to report an alleged criminal confession?

The answer can be a bit complicated, depending on your relationship to the person making the confession and your state's laws.

Failure to report a felony, called misprision of felony, is technically a federal crime, but only if a person actively conceals his actual knowledge that a felony was committed. Failure to report someone's alleged confession likely doesn't fit the federal statute.

However, state laws describe some specific situations in which a person must report a crime -- and, in some cases, a confession. Those situations include:

  • A patient's confession to his therapist. If a patient seems serious about planning to commit a crime, his therapist may be required to report it under some states' laws.
  • Child abuse or neglect. Forty-eight states impose penalties on "mandatory reporters" -- in general, adults who are placed in charge of children -- who fail to report suspected child abuse.
  • Broad "failure to report" laws. Some states like Ohio make it a misdemeanor to knowingly fail to report any death or serious burn injury to authorities. Other states like Texas make it a misdemeanor if you fail to report a felony, but only if you personally witness it.

But in New York, where the Etan Patz disappearance happened, there isn't a broad "failure to report" law. A state senate bill would make it a felony to fail to report a child's death or disappearance, but the bill has not yet made it out of committee.

Other state laws may also affect the reporting of criminal confessions. For example, laws may prevent a person's spouse or priest from testifying about a confession. Regardless, it may be wise to consult an experienced criminal attorney to make sure you're on the right side of the law with regards to reporting a confession.

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