Seeing a crime and not reporting it is often not a crime

While witnessing a man drown to death may seem cruel, it is not a crime in many states.

Story highlights

  • The teens who filmed a man drowning in Florida may not have committed a crime
  • That's because in Florida and many other states, citizens are not legally required to save someone if they are not the ones who endangered the person

(CNN)A group of Florida teens watched a man drown in a pond and did nothing to help him, laughing and filming his death on a cell phone.

But though they stood by for 10 minutes without rendering aid, Florida police said earlier this week that it could be difficult to charge them with a crime.
    There isn't a law in Florida that requires people to call for help for anyone in distress, according to law enforcement officials.
    "If there was (a law like that), we would charge them," Cocoa Police Department spokeswoman Yvonne Martinez said.
    Now many people -- including family members of the man who died -- are asking how it could be legal to look on while someone is dying without intervening.
    "The family is frustrated ... the detectives are frustrated that we cannot hold anyone accountable for this," Martinez added. "No one deserves to go like that."
    The teens could face charges for failure to report a death -- but that's a minor charge.
    Some states have so-called 'good Samaritan' laws that protect people who do take action.
    But only a few states actually have laws requiring residents to act if they see a crime. In Minnesota, for example, there's a "duty to assist" provision. According to the law, anyone "at the scene of an emergency" who knows that someone "has suffered grave physical harm, or could be hurt" must provide "reasonable assistance." Minnesota lawmakers define reasonable assistance as calling or attempting to call police or medical personnel, according to state statute.
    By contrast, many foreign countries including Denmark, Germany and France have duty to assist statues or similar laws.
    The absence of such laws here owes in part to the fact that courts have consistently ruled a person is not bound by law to help someone else (even if one would think the law of common decency applied).
    "You cannot be held responsible for anything unless you have a duty," CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.
    Cevallos says as horrible as the crime may sound, only people with a specific job or relationship are required to render aid. Lifeguards, for example, are bound by their jobs to save people from drowning. Parents are required to take care of their children. People who have endangered the welfare of others are often required to render aid. But the state cannot obligate citizens to act a certain way if they don't have a responsibility to do so.
    "Not everything that is morally correct can be legally mandated," Cevallos said. "Morality is always going to be a larger circle than the law."
    This is not the first time that people have been known to stand by and watch a crime in progress without intervening.
    In 2009, for example, police said that more than a dozen teens were aware that boys were gang-raping a 15-year-old girl outside a California high school homecoming dance, but did nothing to stop the horrific crime.
    The police were hamstrung in their investigation because, while a California state law made it illegal not to report a witnessed crime against a child, it only applied to children 14 and under.
    "We do not have the ability to arrest people who witnessed the crime and did nothing," police in Richmond, California told CNN at the time. "The law can be very rigid. We don't have the authority to make an arrest."
    The Florida drowning strikes many as particularly cruel because the teens can be heard on the video taunting the man and telling him they will not be coming to his aid.
    But it's by no means the first time digital technology has turned indifference to a crime into a public spectacle that many find deeply unsettling.
    Earlier this year, a Facebook Live video showed a young Chicago man with special needs being bound, cut, kicked and taunted while his captors laugh and hurl racial insults. The young woman who filmed the video even turned the camera on herself, apparently aware that what she was filming would be seen by others -- and deemed almost a form of entertainment.
    Chicago police investigated another crime in March that they became aware of through Facebook Live. A video streamed on the site showing at least five to six men sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, police said. Dozens of people were watching the live stream at one point and no one called police.
      The police ultimately arrested two teens -- a 14-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy -- on charges including aggravated criminal sexual assault and manufacturing and disseminating child pornography.
      But those two are being prosecuted for possibly committing the crime. All of the witnesses who saw the attack? It's very likely they are not guilty -- of an actual crime, at least.