Criminal Law

Reporting Crimes: Witnessing, Ignoring, Falsely Reporting, and Lying

By Thomas Seigel, Attorney and Former Federal Prosecutor
Although there's no general legal duty to report crime, many exceptions exist.

Most of the time, ordinary citizens are not legally required to report a crime or to do anything to stop it. In other words, there is no general duty to be a “good Samaritan.” But the exceptions are surprisingly widespread.

A few states, for example, require witnesses at the scene of a violent crime to make reports to law enforcement when they can safely do so. Many states require all persons to report suspected child abuse. Further, depending on your job, you may, as an employee, have an obligation to report certain work-related suspicious activity to a government agency or the police. These duties are commonly called “mandatory reporting requirements.”

Mandatory reporting requirements are frequently accompanied by provisions that make failing to file a report a crime itself. That failure is usually a misdemeanor, but it can be a felony. Prosecutions for failure to report are very rare, and usually involve strong evidence of a serious harm that could have been prevented if a person with a duty to make a report had done so.

If you make a report, whether mandatory or not, what are your responsibilities? Let’s first look more closely at the times when you have no duty, and then at the times when you might.

Witnessing and Ignoring a Crime: No General Duty to Report or Get Involved

As a general rule, members of the public are not legally required to intervene when they witness a crime, nor must they report it to the police. In some situations, depending on the specifics of state law, they may make a citizens’ arrest, but that is an option, not a requirement. The reason for not requiring intervention or reporting is to leave policing to the professionals and to avoid turning all citizens into informants.

For example, imagine taking a walk in the park on your day off. You see a masked man running toward you with a purse in his hand. He’s being chased by an elderly woman. You are an expert in martial arts. You happen to be standing next to a lamp post with a police emergency phone. You could easily stop the thief or report him. But you do neither, and the robber gets away. Have you done anything wrong? Putting moral questions aside, you have committed no crime by failing to intervene or make a report. Along the same lines, while you have likely seen many posters with the slogan “If you see something, say something,” all the police can do, in most cases, is ask the public to make reports and hope that they do.

Work-related Obligations to Report

When you are at work, you may be subject to state and federal laws that impose certain reporting obligations that do not apply to the general public. If you work in a field covered by extensive government regulation, such as health care and education, it’s highly likely that you have some mandatory reporting duties. Governments typically enact such laws to protect persons who may be particularly vulnerable, such as children, the disabled, and the elderly. And some professionals have mandatory reporting requirements even where no vulnerable victims are involved. For example, environmental crimes like mishandling hazardous waste and financial crimes like money-laundering typically require witnesses to report what they know.

Each state, and the federal government, has its own definitions of who is a protected person, which events trigger a duty to report, and who is a mandatory reporter. If you think you might be covered, it is important to understand the details in the applicable regulations

Child Abuse

Every state requires certain groups of professionals to report child abuse. Most commonly, people who work in health care, education, and child care are among those required to make a report of suspected child abuse to local authorities. Some states require all citizens to report cases of suspected child abuse.

Vulnerable Adults

As with child abuse, many laws impose mandatory duties to report abuse of the elderly and persons unable to care for themselves because of illness or disability. Nursing home employees, mental health and health care workers, and other professionals responsible for the care and oversight of such vulnerable adults have mandatory reporting requirements in a majority of states.

Making a Report: How Lying Can Get You in Trouble

Whether you choose to make a report or you are required to do so, do not make a false report. However, don’t confuse a “false” report with an honest mistake. If you tell the police the getaway car was red, but the next day you remember it was white, that’s an honest mistake.

While it’s alright to make an honest mistake in describing what you saw, you should not intentionally mislead the authorities. Providing a false report to the police is itself a crime. Similarly, if you are approached by law enforcement because you may have witnessed a crime and you choose to answer their questions, you should not lie. Making an intentionally false statement in response to a law enforcement question about an investigation is a crime often referred to as “misprision.”

When considering whether to make a report, remember that you do not have to be certain that a crime has been committed, or will be committed. It's up to law enforcement and the courts to ultimately determine whether the activity is criminal. Just make your report as accurate as you can and stick to the facts.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • What should I do if a teacher at the school where I volunteer says a child’s bruises are not abuse, but I’m not sure?
  • What should I do if I think my boss is illegally dumping medical or hazardous waste?
  • What are my duties as a conservator or guardian for an elderly person?
  • What should I do if the police want to interview me about my neighbor’s domestic dispute?
  • What should I do if I lied to the police about an incident involving a relative?
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