Is It Legal To Not Report A Crime?

Let's say you have information about a serious crime that, for whatever reason, you don't wish to disclose to police. Perhaps you fear repercussions from the perpetrator, have close ties to one of the guilty parties or were told about the crime in confidence long after it had been committed. Is it legal to hold your tongue and pretend you saw/heard nothing?

Police car image from Shutterstock

Police strongly encourage the reporting of crimes, especially when they're of a serious nature. But is failing to pick up the phone illegal?

Generally speaking, it is your choice whether or not to report a crime to the police. Australian law enforcement agencies cannot force eyewitnesses to make a statement, just as they can't force suspected criminals to talk following their arrest.

However, this doesn't mean there are zero repercussions for keeping shtum; particularly when it comes to serious indictable offences such as theft, murder or the selling of illegal drugs.

In these circumstances, deliberately withholding information can lead to actual jail time, even if you had nothing to do with the crime. Here's an example under Section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act:

If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed and that he or she has information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for it fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the Police Force or other appropriate authority, that other person is liable to imprisonment for 2 years.

Similarly, under section 8.68 124A of the NT family violence legislation:

an adult commits an offence if he or she fails to report to a police officer his or her belief, based on reasonable grounds, that:

  • another person has caused, or is likely to cause, harm to someone else with whom the other person is in a domestic relationship; and/or
  • the life or safety of another person is under serious or imminent threat because domestic violence has been, is being, or is about to be committed.

Some people are also legally obligated to report crimes that relate to their profession. For example, school teachers in Australia must report suspected child abuse to the relevant authorities. (In Victoria, reporting child sexual abuse is a legal responsibility for everyone, regardless of profession.)

On the other hand, some "prescribed professions" are exempt from reporting crimes that were disclosed to them as part of their occupation. The obvious examples are psychologists and members of the clergy, but the rule can also apply to lawyers, doctors, nurses and social workers.

However, if the police believe you have important information about a crime, they can get a subpoena to force you to give evidence in court — even if the information was received while acting in one of the aforementioned prescribed professions. You then face serious penalties if you're caught lying.

In short, a citizen's duty to report crimes to police isn't exclusively moral. As Sydney Criminal Lawyers explains on its website:

There are many good reasons why a person may not want to report a crime, yet those reasons may not be sufficient to escape liability. Also, many people do not know which crimes are indictable (which means they can be decided in a higher court) let alone which ones are "serious indictable offences" — and must therefore be reported.

If in doubt, do the right thing and report the crime.

Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.


Comments

    If you're a criminal you do not get to get away with what you have done, no justification or excuses will be enough. If you're hurting others or putting others in immediate danger then you should be behind bars if you're unable to tell what your doing is wrong or continue to do so once warned of the dangers.

    NEVER report a crime on hearsay tho, unless you know for certain that something is true spreading rumors as fact can be damaging to the justice system by punishing/imprisoning innocent people or putting them on a watch/monitor list.

    The goal of reporting crimes is to protect others from someone taking advantage (monetarily or other) or threatening the safety and livelihood of others. If everyone ignored the system then no one would have security, safety or ownership and that isn't fair on people who do try their best to follow the rules and work hard everyday.

    Single petty crimes shouldn't ever be reported (unless caught outright), sometimes life needs a bit of excitement and people can never learn how bad a guilty conscience is without ever doing something wrong and then given the chance to learn on their own. Plus "snitches get stitches" but staying silent eventually gets you much worse, karma may only let you off for so long.

    Last edited 06/06/16 6:22 pm

      I would like to report several crimes against the English language here.

      Isn't hearsay and rumour pretty much how they nail drug labs these days?

    Does knowing about a crime make you an accessory?
    I think you have to help the perp to be an accessory.
    In some jurisdictions, the penalty to being an accessory is the same offence as the actual doing it.
    In Australia, being an accessory is a lesser charge.

      Accessory to the fact. When you knowingly let a crime happen although you did not take part.

    What about those who may claim ecclesiastical privilege, e.g. reported child abuse within religious organisations? What's their legal loop hole for getting out of reporting the crime?

      Money and political influence.

    You sound like a person that feels the justice system doesn’t work, I would suggest that you have been on the wrong side of the law many times and feel unlucky or targeted despite your continued actions being unlawful. Maybe considert hat your own actions are to blame rather than the "System". With that in mind perhaps some education to help point you in the right direction:

    Reporting crimes is the ethically sound process which enables society to function correctly, the Police are charged with the protection of others, it is your civic duty to make sure the Police have the information to investigate and reduce these crimes effectively.

    If you suspect a crime has been committed, you are also legally bound to report the crime regardless of the perceived level of seriousness is. The Police will then investigate and if there is evidence to substantiate the claim, the person will be charged. This person will then be afforded legal defence and have his/her day in court. Rumour will not damage the justice system, this notion is simply ridiculous and any rudimentary knowledge of the legal system would counter such an argument.

    What consitutes a single petty crime? Where does the line end? You suggest that single petty crimes should never be reported, but what if you were the victim of these single petty crimes every day? A neighbour steals your paper, a motorist scratches your car and drives off, your wallet is stolen? I would suggest you would have a change of opinion fairly quickly.

    Your statement seems to fade in and out of empathy toward others, when considering whether or not to report a crime there is usually a fairly simple litmus test:

    "If I was a victim of this crime, would I want a person to report the crime and bring the offender to justice?" or "Would you want a person to report a suspicious person looking through your windows with a crowbar in his/her hand?

    As Plato said: "The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs, is to be ruled by evil men"

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