Can You Be Charged For Knowing About A Crime And Not Saying Anything?
If you witness a crime, are you obligated to report it to the police? What if you are aware that a crime is going to be committed, but you do nothing to prevent it from occurring? Can you be criminally charged if you do nothing at all?
Many people are unaware of their legal obligation when it comes to reporting criminal activity. Some don’t want to get involved for fear of becoming a victim themselves. There is always the possibility that you risk harm to yourself or a third party if you divulge information about a crime you suspect has already been committed, or know of before it happens.
Others may feel they have a moral obligation to respond as a Good Samaritan and expose criminals for their wrongdoing. However, there is a big difference between a feeling of ethical responsibility and a legal duty to act.
Generally speaking, most people are under no legal obligation to report a crime, whether they knew about it in advance, witnessed its commission, or found out about it after the fact. However, there are exceptions to this law that you ought to know about.
Let’s take a brief look at some examples of when you can be held liable for having knowledge of a crime…
Aiding And Abetting A Crime (Penal Code Section 31)
In California, you can be charged with the crime that was committed if you aided or abetted in its commission, but did not actually commit the crime yourself. Penal Code section 31 describes the phrase “aiding and abetting” as meaning that you assisted another person to commit a crime. Prosecutors can charge you as an aider and abettor whenever you:
- Know the perpetrator’s illegal plan,
- Intentionally encourage and/or facilitate that plan, and
- Aid, promote, or instigate in the crime’s commission.
You don’t have to be actually present at the scene of the crime to be charged under what is known as “accomplice liability.” If you willfully participated in the planning of a crime prior to its commission, you can be held criminally liable as an “accessory before the fact.”
If you take a passive role during a crime in progress, such as acting as a lookout or disabling a security device, you can be prosecuted as a perpetrator in the second degree (an accomplice).
Finally, if you help to conceal a crime already committed (hiding stolen money or weapons used in the crime’s commission, for example), or give assistance to perpetrators of crime to help them avoid detection, arrest or prosecution, you can be charged as an “accessory after the fact.”
In these situations, you are culpable under the accomplice liability theory because you knew of the illegal plan and willfully did something to cause it to be carried out or concealed.
Is Failure to Report a Crime, a Crime in California?
The defendant knew the details of the scheme that was being planned
The defendant encouraged another person to commit the criminal act
The defendant assisted directly with the criminal activity like being the lookout for a burglary
Teachers and school officials
Law enforcement officers
physical and verbal abuse
California Mandatory Reporting Laws (California Penal Code Sections 11164-11174.3)
Duty of Witnesses to Report Crime
Since 1999, the law in California has recognized a limited duty to report violent crimes perpetrated against victims that are 14-years-old or younger.
California penal code 152.3 applies to those who witness the commission of a murder, rape, or lewd conduct against a child under the age of 14, and requires that these witnesses report such offenses to a peace officer.
The failure to report under these circumstances is a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to six months in county jail and a $1500 fine.
The law recognizes exceptions to the duty report, which seek to preserve certain privileged relationships.
Thus, the law does not require a witness to report a crime perpetrated by a spouse, child, brother, sister, grandparent, or grandchild.
There was significant debate in California regarding the duty to of witnesses to report crimes after the horrifying gang rape of a 15-year-old girl during a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in 2009.
The violent assault continued in view of dozens of bystanders for over two hours before someone finally called police and ended the attack.
In the years since the rape, six men have been convicted of various sex-related offenses stemming from the attack. The last of the defendants were sentenced in April 2014.
In the aftermath of the crime, police, and members of the public expressed frustration over the fact that no charges could be brought against the many witnesses who stood by without calling the police and allowed the attack to continue, simply because the duty to report did not extend to bystanders who witnessed crimes against a 15-year-old victim.
Some people have a legal duty to report suspected or actual cases of child abuse or neglect under California’s Mandatory Reporting Laws (Penal Code sections 11164-11173.4). A mandatory reporter does not have to actually witness a child being abused or neglected. Rather, a “reasonable suspicion” from other sources that child abuse or neglect has occurred is enough to trigger this responsibility.
Mandatory reporters are defined under Penal Code section 11165.7, and include over 40 different professionals, such as:
- School administrators;
- Administrators of youth centers and activities;
- Medical care professionals (doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, etc.);
- Law enforcement officers; Judges; District Attorney’s
- Social workers;
- Clergy members, outside of a “penitential communication” (confession);
- Therapists; and
- Computer technicians.
California law broadly covers instances of child abuse and neglect, including but not limited to:
- Any sexual abuse of a minor, no matter how slight, whether over or under the clothes;
- Sexual exploitation;
- Child endangerment;
- Physical injury, such as:
- Throwing harmful objects or substances; and
- Pulling hair;
- Verbal abuse;
- Failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical attention and education; and
- Emotional abuse or neglect.
A mandatory reporter must file a complaint of suspected or actual child abuse or neglect with an appropriate law enforcement or child support services agency within 36 hours of discovery. Failure to fulfill this legal duty to report, or impeding someone from doing so is a crime in itself and may be charged as a misdemeanor.
If you are convicted of failure to fulfill a legal duty as a mandatory reporter, you can be fined up to $1,000 and/or sentenced to serve up to six months in jail. If you willfully prevent someone from filing a mandatory report, you can be punished by a maximum $5,000 fine, a one-year jail sentence, or both.
Failure To Report A Crime Under Federal Law (18 U.S.C. Section 4)
Federal law prohibits concealing information about specific crimes. Under 18 United States Code, Section 4, you may be obligated to report a crime if you are directly asked during a criminal investigation whenever:
- You have knowledge of the commission of a felony;
- The felony actually occurred; and
- The felony is a federal offense;
If you willfully conceal the commission of a felony federal offense, you can be charged with “misprision of a felony.” Misprision of a felony is a form of obstruction of justice. If you are convicted, you face up to a $250,000 fine, imprisonment up to three years, or both fine and imprisonment.
Can You Report A Crime Anonymously?
Privately-operated, anonymous toll-free hotlines and website portals are available to “tipsters” where you may safely report a crime without revealing your identity. Many law enforcement agencies allow you to anonymously report a crime online as well. However, if you call 911 emergency response, be advised that law enforcement agencies may be able to track your phone number.
Additionally, California law requires mandatory reports of child abuse or neglect to remain confidential. A government agency receiving a report from a mandatory reporter may not divulge the source of a confidentially submitted report of suspected or actual child abuse or neglect to a reporter’s employer without the reporter’s prior consent.