When a crime occurs and bystanders are around, you would hope they call the police or offer to help. However, that’s not always the case. Bystanders don’t report crimes they witness out of fear or other reasons. Also, what if they are mistaken, and no crime actually occurred? Even worse, what happens when someone completely makes up a crime, tying up police forces and resources?

Gang Rape in California; Duty to Report?

Let’s say you’re walking down a street and witness a robbery. You can report it, but you don’t have to. There’s generally no duty to report a crime unless special circumstances exist. While this is the general rule in the United States, it has recently been subject to much discussion and criticism.

In California, as many as 10 males raped and beat a 15-year-old girl outside a high school’s homecoming dance. Investigators believe the beating and rape lasted for more than two hours and as many as 20 people watched and did nothing. Reporters even say some witnesses took photos and laughed.

While six males, ranging in age from 15-21 were charged, one of the biggest issues raised is the conduct of the bystanders. It’s been reported that none of the bystanders made any attempt to stop the crime or call the police. Only hours later, after overhearing some people talking about the event did a person call the police. The police found the girl unconscious under the bench where she’d been left.

While the bystanders’ actions may have been immoral, they didn’t break the law and are unlikely to face any criminal charges. It’s very rare to charge someone for failing to act unless a special relationship, such as a parent and child relationship, exists. In some states, doctors and teachers must report suspected child abuse. Otherwise, there’s no duty to report.

However, national outrage over this recent incident may lead states to create new laws punishing bystanders who don’t report such awful crimes. While it may be difficult to prove negligence, there is an interest in protecting people against violent crimes, and this interest outweighs the privacy interest of bystanders, who could’ve easily called the police instead of using their cell phones to take pictures.

However, this raises another issue, what happens when a crime is reported, but turns out to be false?

False Reporting: The College “Gunman”

A student at St. Paul College recently reported an armed man in a campus elevator, who appeared upset over his financial aid. As a result, the building was evacuated, more than 40 police officers responded to the charge and SWAT officers came.

The report turned out to be bad; the woman’s reasons for the false call aren’t yet clear. Yet 42-year-old Charleeta Brown has been charged with falsely reporting a crime and will likely have to go to court.

Making Up A Crime: Balloon Boy

Even more extreme, in Colorado a couple was criminally charged for starting a hoax after they reported that their 6-year-old son had floated away aboard a UFO-shaped helium balloon. The parents plead guilty to the felony of attempting to influence a public servant and may face probation or even jail time for their lie.

It’s been suggested that the couple lied as a publicity stunt to get money. However, reports say the four-hour search for the boy cost the county more than $20,000 and the couple may be ordered to repay those costs.

In sum, if you see a crime and have the ability to call the police, you should do so as a moral duty. However, there’s no legal duty to do so. Even if it turns to be false, if you have good intentions, you’re unlikely to be charged. However, there is a big difference between being mistaken and making something up for attention, as the case above clearly illustrates.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I witnessed a crime in progress, can I be arrested for not reporting it?
  • I want to report a crime I witnessed, but I'm scared that the criminal will come after me if I report it. What should I do?
  • Can I be arrested for making up a police report?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, report crime witnesses, false report, criminal lawyer