Witnessing a crime can be a murky legal area, depending on where you live and what the circumstances are. In this article we’ll explore the responsibilities of witnesses to a crime, when witnesses need to do something and when they don’t, as well as, how to look out for your own safety.
Reporting crime anonymously
Many people feel the moral thing to do is to report criminal activity. However, while some people want to help, they prefer to just notify the authorities, not have to identify themselves and stay out of it. While they’d prefer to anonymously call 911 – it’s hard to keep such calls anonymous. However, there are many anonymous toll-free hotlines and web portals, as well as privately operated hotlines out there allow you to safely report a crime without revealing your identity.
Looking out for your own safety
Even though there are ways to report crime anonymously, there is still the fear that the criminal might know who snitched on them. There are many times when people who witness a crime don’t want to say anything out of fear for their own safety – and sometimes there is a good justification for such fear, especially when street gangs or organized crime might be involved, or when the criminal knows them and/or where their family resides. One always has to consider their own personal safety and that of their loved ones when reporting crimes connected to a dangerous person and/or associates who could retaliate and make the witness or their family the next victim.
Do you have to report a crime?
In a general sense, in many states, there is no legal obligation for most people to report witnessing a crime – even if they knew about it in advance, witnessed it happening or even found out about it after it occurred. It all depends on the specific laws of that state and the circumstances. Therefore, it’s important to know them because failure to disclose a crime you had knowledge of in some situations could get you arrested as well.
Unfortunate gray areas of the law
Many states do not have laws to prosecute people who are aware of a crime but do nothing.
Recent examples were a dozen teens in California who did nothing while they witnessed boys gang raping a 15-year-old girl outside a high school homecoming dance. Lawmakers were unable to do anything. Even though California has a law requiring someone to report a crime against a child, it only applies to children 14 and under.
In Florida, another group of teens watched a man drown in a pond and did nothing to help them, all the while filming him dying via their cell phone as they laughed. Authorities said there was no law that required people to call for assistance to someone in distress in that state.
Circumstances in which you must report a crime
Keep in mind, laws requiring an individual to report a crime can vary by state, so it’s important to know the laws of the state you reside in, and there are actually only a few states that have laws that require residents to take action. That said, generally these may apply…
Reporting child abuse
Many states legally require its citizens to report suspected or actual cases of child abuse or neglect. In such cases, the person reporting the crime does not actually have to witness, but rather can act on a “reasonable suspicion” from other sources that indicates potential abuse or neglect has occurred. Not only does this apply to citizens, but to a variety of professionals who come in contact with children in the course of their work.
Good Samaritan & “duty to assist” laws
Some states have so-called “Good Samaritan” laws that require people to take action in a “duty to assist” provision to provide reasonable assistance if they know someone could be hurt or has suffered grave physical harm. Reasonable assistance is often defined as calling police, fire or medical personnel.
Additionally, Good Samaritan laws protect those people who do take action from being sued as a result of such action.
Aiding and abetting a crime
In some states, even if you did not actually commit a crime itself, you can be charged with “aiding and abetting a crime” if you have knowledge of the crime either before or after under any of the following circumstances:
- Knew the illegal plan of the perpetrator.
- Aided, promoted or instigated in the commission of the crime.
- Intentionally encouraged and/or facilitated the plan.
Someone who wasn’t even at the scene of the crime can be charged under what’s called “accomplice liability.” This also accounts for lookouts, or people involved in secondary acts such as disabling security or providing entrance.
“Accessory after the fact”
Accessory after the fact refers to actions taken after the crime has been committed such as:
- Giving assistance to the perpetrator of a crime afterward in ways that might help them avoid detection, arrest or prosecution.
- Hiding stolen goods, weapons or money.
- Assistance in concealing a crime.
Federal laws that require you to report a crime
Under 18 United States Code, Section 4, individuals may be obligated to report a crime if they are directly asked during a criminal investigation whenever:
- Have knowledge of the commission of a felony
- The felony actually occurred
- The felony is a federal offense
Failure to do so or or attempts to conceal a felony federal offense can cause you to be charged with a form of obstruction of justice called a “Misprison of a felony,” which carries a potential fine of $250,000, up to three years imprisonment, or both.
Victim witness programs at the federal level
The federal government has designed a program to help crime witnesses involved with the criminal justice system.
According to the United States Attorney’s office: The Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982 (VWPA) was enacted “to enhance and protect the necessary role of crime victims and witnesses in the criminal justice process; to ensure that the Federal government does all that is possible within limits of available resources to assist victims and witnesses of crime without infringing on the constitutional rights of defendants; and to provide a model for legislation for state and local governments.”