The legal obligation to report a crime is complicated territory. It is rare for a person who is a simple witness to a crime to be prosecuted for failing to report that crime; however, if a prosecutor wanted to prosecute there are several different ways that they could go about doing it.
U.S. Code, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 1, Section 4 defines "misprision of felony" and states that anyone who has knowledge of a crime and fails to report that crime may be fined, imprisoned for up to three years or both. Most states have similar laws on misprision. This law is very rarely enforced, though. Only South Carolina, in the 1980 case State v. Carson, has successfully prosecuted a person for witnessing a crime and failing to report that crime.
Individuals are supposed to be able to confide in their attorney and their doctor without legal repercussions. When it comes to crime this is not always the case. If a client seeks out an attorney to enable them to commit a crime or an act of fraud it falls under the "crime-fraud" exemption and the lawyer must report it. A person can obviously seek council after the fact, but an attorney cannot help someone who plans to commit a crime. There is a similar exception for doctors, pertaining primarily to psychiatrists; if a patient tells a psychiatrist or other doctor about a crime they have committed, or plan to commit, the doctor may be required to report that crime.
If a person knows that a crime is going to occur beforehand and fails to report it, or knows someone who has committed a crime and fails to report it, they may be charged as an accessory to that crime even if they are not a participant in the crime. A person who fails to report a crime after it occurs is known as an "accessory after the fact" and prosecutions in this case are more common as anything that a person does to shelter the criminal is considered a contribution to the crime. A person who knows about a crime before it occurs, known as "accessory before the fact," is not prosecuted as often because proof is required that the person knew and that they in some way encouraged the crime.
Aiding and Abetting
A person may be charged with aiding and abetting under very similar rules to being an accessory. For aiding and abetting though, simply knowing about a crime beforehand and not making an effort to prevent the crime is sufficient to be considered an aid to the crime. A person may be charged with both being an accessory to a crime and aiding and abetting. If for example a person knew an individual was going to commit a crime, made no effort to prevent that crime and then hid the individual after the crime had been committed, they could be charged with both offenses even without being directly involved in the crime.
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