Misprision of felony is a crime committed when a person knows that someone has been involved in a felony but fails to report it to law enforcement authorities. The crime of misprision of felony originated in the common law of Great Britain. In the U.S., however, it has never been adopted as a crime by most states. If it was adopted as a crime, it has been abolished. If it is still a crime, it is almost never prosecuted. So the concept is of very limited importance in American criminal law.
This is because it is generally considered excessively harsh to put people in prison for failing to report a crime. It is also probably difficult to detect perpetrators. The police would be looking for someone who did not tell them what they knew. It would be challenging to identify people who knew something but failed to report it.
Instead, in most states, failure to report a known felony to authorities is covered by other laws, such as accomplice liability. In addition, law enforcement often works with other agencies of government to provide incentives for informants with information about recently committed crimes to come forward and report what they know. They provide monetary rewards for information. This gives people an incentive to report knowledge they have about criminal activity.
The conduct that constituted the crime of misprision of felony under the common law definition is usually covered by other state criminal laws today. Some of the crimes that cover the same conduct today are being an accessory after the fact, making false statements to the police or filing a false report, and obstruction of justice.
These laws would be inconsistent with misprision of felony, because a person who made a report to the police could be prosecuted if they gave police the wrong or incorrect information. No rational person would want to risk prosecution by reporting what they know about a crime to the police.
For example, under Pennsylvania law, a person falsely incriminates another person when they knowingly give false information to any law enforcement officer with the intent to implicate that other person in the commission of a crime. It is also illegal for a person to report an offense to law enforcement when they know it did not occur. It is also a crime for a person to pretend to give authorities information relating to an offense when the person does not really have any information about it.
So, in today’s world, it appears that authorities are more concerned about people feeding false information to the police than about people failing to report information they have about the commission of crimes. The former is the priority for modern law enforcement.
To the extent that states still have statutes making misprision of felony a crime, most misprision statutes apply to failure to report a completed felony. A few states do still punish the act of failing to report a future felony. In the few states in which misprision of felony is a crime, it is a misdemeanor.
Misprision of felony is a federal crime in the U.S.. The penalty is up to three years in prison and/or payment of a fine. Misprision of felony per the common law was committed by simply knowing about a felony and not telling the authorities. But the current definition of the crime in federal law requires that the perpetrator make some affirmative act to conceal the crime that is not reported. So, in federal law, the crime has four elements:
- Someone committed a complete felony;
- The defendant has known about the felony’s commission;
- The defendant has failed to notify a law enforcement authority of the commission of the felony, and
- The defendant has taken some affirmative step to conceal the felony.
Concealing the felony would involve such acts as making false statements, hiding evidence, or harboring the perpetrator so law enforcement cannot locate them. Whether someone’s actions amount to concealment is something that a judge or jury would decide at the end of a trial.
Suppose John knows his neighbor, James, has committed a series of bank robberies. John cannot be guilty of misprision of felony simply for not telling the police what he knows. But if he is asked about it by federal law enforcement authorities, and he lies to the police about James’s commission of bank robberies, he then becomes guilty of the federal crime of misprision of felony.
The crime is rarely prosecuted, perhaps because prosecutors have more important crimes to deal with. The perpetrators who may be prosecuted are people who have a special legal duty to report crimes. That would be prison guards and elected officials. But whether or not to prosecute is entirely a matter of choice on the part of prosecutors. The authorities might choose to prosecute the crime if the government should want to encourage reporting of such things as treason or terrorism.
Mostly, misprision only exists in states that adopted the common law in whole at some time in its past through a statute or in their state constitutions. A few states do have their own statutory misprision-related laws as well. Still, prosecutions are extremely rare even if a state includes a misprision clause.
In states in which misprision is still a crime, it must be proven that the perpetrator had an “evil motive” to throw off the administration of justice. A 1945 case reported in Massachusetts supplies an example. In this case the perpetrator discovered the dead body of a missing child who was being sought by several law enforcement agencies in the area. He did so, however, while pursuing an extra-marital affair.
Because he was afraid that his affair would be made public, he did not report the body to law enforcement. The man did later report the location of the body to the police. Nonetheless, he was convicted of misprision of felony. On appeal, a court held that he should not be convicted of the crime because he did not have the evil intent that is an element of the crime.
The Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination is yet another reason for which it would be difficult to win conviction of misprision of a felony. Most people will not report a witnessed crime to authorities for fear they themselves might be charged in connection with the crime; the police might question how they came to have the information they know. For this reason, most accomplices cannot be prosecuted for misprision
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Information about a Crime?
If you are aware that a felony has taken place and are unsure if you are legally required to report the crime, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer can analyze the law in your state regarding misprision of felony and filing a false report. They can then advise you as to whether you should report or not.
If you have been charged with the criminal offense of failing to report a felony, or if you have been charged with filing a false report, you will definitely need the assistance of a lawyer to represent you in your case.