What obligation does a private citizen have to answer police questions about another person's crime?

This thread is factual inquiry and half solicition of opinion, so I flipped a coin and put in here rather than GQ. What it is not is a request for legal advice. I’m talking about a purely hypothetical situation suggested by something I saw on the way to work this morning.

Outside the offices of Planned Parenthood in midtown Memphis, there is a subdued but daily demonstration going on; I pass it each day on the way to work. Each morning, about half a dozen people gather in front of the building to protest against abortion rights. They’ve been doing this for about a month, and this is the second year they’ve done it. (On one Sunday last year, the organizers managed to gather what had to be hundreds of people for the demonstration, in a line that stretched for miles. It was quite a sight.)

This morning I happened to talk to one of my older brothers: specifically the one I can’t stand. He’s heard about this demonstration and thinks its a great thing, as he considers doctors who provide abortions to be murderers, and anyone who works in their offices to be accessories to murder. After we hung up, it occurred to me that, if my brother were more inclined to violence, I could imagine him blowing up an abortion clinic; he is just that passionate.

Let’s say he did and that only property damage were done; no persons were injured. But still he’s on the run. Let’s say further that, though neither I nor my sisters had any knowledge of his plan, either before or after the crime, nonetheless we had reason to suspect that he might be at the house in North Mississippi which our grandparents used to own. Now if the police asked me if I knew where he was, I’d rat him out in a minute, because, as I said earlier, I can’t stand him. But my sisters like him more than me, and feel more family obligation; they wouldn’t want to rat him out.

Okay, that’s the sitch. Now the questions. Assuming that no one lies to the police or helps the fugitive in any way, can the relatives be legally obligated to give the address where he might be hiding? For that matter, do they have an ethical obligation to do so?

Can’t answer the factual part, but regarding ethical obligation to give the address, I would say yes in most, but not all cases. I could conceive of cases where they might be justified in carrying out such acts (such as resistance against an occupying power) so the answer is not cut and dried.

In general, however, the fact that someone happens to be a relative cuts no ice with me if I’m aware that they’ve intentionally caused unjustified harm to others, even if only property damage resulted. In the specific case of abortion, it is a legal procedure and I personally do not beleive that it is murder within the parameters under which it is legally performed, so for me there is no justification for terroristic acts protesting such. I’d turn his sorry ass in.

On a somewhat related note, there’s a case going on in here in central Illinois where some relative of an accused murderer lied and told the police she didn’t know his whereabouts. She is now in a jail in Logan County facing Obstruction of Justice charges.

IANAL, but I think that if the police had reason to believe that you knew the whereabouts of a criminal but weren’t talking, the matter could eventually make its way to a judge and result in Contempt of Court charges and you in jail. But again, IANAL and mostly I’m just guessing.

IANAL, but I believe they could get a subpoena to compel you to testify as a material witness. You can only refuse to answer if your answers may tend to incriminate you, and not even then, if the DA promises you immunity.

This would in court, or a judicial hearing of some sort - I don’t believe the police can force you to cooperate with them, for any reason (or no reason).

Practically speaking, you can almost always stonewall the police. Keep saying “I don’t have anything to say”.

The Great Legal Minds of the SDMB will be along shortly to give a more authoritative answer, no doubt.


Don’t Talk To Cops.

I’m already aware of that, thanks. But that is practical advice, not ethical. Surely you’d not advise me not to talk to the cops if I witnessed a murder and saw the killer fleeing, for instance.

Where might he be hiding? Well, he’s a resourceful guy, Officer. He might be hiding just about anywhere!

IMO, a mistake. If you don’t want to talk to the police, you don’t say anything. You don’t make smart-aleck remarks, you don’t play games. You give identifying information like name and birthdate and address, and then you say, “I am not answering any questions.” Repeat as necessary, until some one serves you with a subpoena.


I think he doesnt know for certain, just suspects … big difference there.

I know is different from it is possible.

Now the real question should perhaps be:

I dont know where my brother is, but suspect he may be hiding at X house … is it reasonable to not mention that the family owns another property somewhere that he might be hiding, or can you just go with he isnt here, and i dont know where he is now and not get into trouble.

First, it is illegal to lie to the cops. This is stupid and unjust, but that’s the way it is. But as the OP specifies, nobody’s lying. In that case, there’s no legal obligation to give information to police. In most cases, you can legally refuse to answer police questions, so long as you don’t lie. However, in that case you can expect that you’ll become a subject of investigation as well – either because they think by shadowing you, they be watching when you slip up and contact your brother. Or by discovering something incriminating against you, they can then hold it over you and get you to give up in exchange for immunity. It’s also not too unlikely that you could be the target of police harassment in order to pressure you to give info.

As noted above, a court proceeding, should it get that far, can subpoena you and compel you to testify, and in that case you have an obligation to give truthful answers even to questions you don’t wish to answer. But police furing investigations don’t have that power.


This seems a bit over the top.

If even the accused has the right to remain silent I don’t see how anyone else is obligated to provide information. On the other hand, aiding and abbetting a fugitive is a crime in itself. So I guess it depends on how involved you are with the perpetrator.

The Fifth Amendment protects you against doing anything that would incriminate yourself. It does not protect you from incriminating the other guy.

If you refuse to talk to the police, you can be held for some time as a material witness.

If you refuse to testify at trial, you can be subpoenaed. Refusing to obey a subpoena is a crime. If your testimony would incriminate you, and the prosecutor provides immunity, your testimony can be compelled.

I would advise you not to talk to the cops. Just because you witnessed a murderer running away does not mean the police are inclined to believe your story. If for any reason turn their suspicion to you you’ve put yourself in a bad situation.

Excellent link, thanks.

Welcome to the real world… harassment can be as mild as sitting a uniform in a car outside your house and work 7/24 through sending a cop in to your work, a place you are eating, a sporting event to take you out to the station for more talk, sending one out to question your friends and relatives about you … aggressively scoping you out for traffic stops, sending the fire marshal out to inspect your place of business, sending a health inspector out to investigate your business as appropriate …

I don’t think this is the case. It is not a good idea, but as long as you are not under oath, it is not a crime.

As mentioned, it is better to say nothing, but AFAIK responding to the question “Where do you think your brother might be?” with “I have no idea” is not actionable. Even if you have a pretty good idea he might be hiding in your sister’s basement.


I know, I was joking.

Lying to the cops might not always be a crime, but “hindering apprehension” is. But you wouldn’t get charged with that unless there was some reason to think you did know. Well, they could charge you. But you wouldn’t get convicted.

Not sure about local cops (obviously depends on state and local statutes) but if the FBI is involved, lying to them is a crime. Lying to any federal agent (in the course of their duties) is a federal crime.