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.