Most people are probably familiar with the Seinfeld finale when Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are arrested for violating the so-called “Good Samaritan Law:” while observing a car theft, the gang watch and laugh but do nothing to assist the victim or impede the perpetrator, and are promptly arrested for this inaction. While the episode made for an appropriately amusing sendoff for the show that entertained millions, it actually raised a serious legal consideration: if you are witness to a crime or emergency, are you expected by the law to intervene?
In Utah, compulsory assistance is strictly limited by the authority of police officers: according to §76-8-307 of the Utah code, a citizen is required to assist a police officer in “effecting an arrest or in preventing the commission of any offense by another person,” but only after the officer has commanded them to do so. Failing to render such assistance after being so compelled has the potential to land a citizen with a Class B Misdemeanor charge – the equivalent of a DUI, barring aggravating factors – and subject to fines, treatments, and even jail time.
While this law is clearly distinguishable from the fictitious Seinfeld law in that it requires an individual to be first commanded to get involved, the Utah legislature has indeed compiled law concerning voluntary assistance, as examined below.
Coincidentally, the Utah law governing voluntary bystander assistance during an emergency is also known as the Good Samaritan Act. Appearing under the somewhat obscure “Miscellaneous Provisions” section of the Utah code, the act provides immunity from civil damages or penalties to any person who “render[s] emergency care at or near the scene…gratuitously and in good faith…unless the person is grossly negligent or caused the emergency.” The act goes on to list a few examples of emergencies to which it may be applied, including “motor vehicle accidents, disasters, actual or threatened discharges, removal, or disposal of hazardous materials, and other accidents or events of a similar nature.”
While this act offers apparent protection for providing assistance in emergency situations (but does not in itself compel such assistance), it does leave a great deal to be desired insofar as definitions are concerned. First and foremost, the act provides no apparent protection from criminal penalties (it specifically lists only civil damages or penalties), and second, it critically fails to offer either a definition of or example for what the legislature intended in its use of the phrase “gross negligence.” These shortcomings leave a citizen vulnerable to both civil and criminal charges whenever they might become involved in an emergency, and perhaps more significantly, leaves it in the hands of the state to determine just how “grossly negligent” a citizen’s actions may or may not have been.
Supposing then that a citizen becomes voluntarily involved in an emergency situation and finds that they are in the unenviable position of facing charges by a victim or the state, what sort of penalties are they liable to face?
PENALTIES FOR VOLUNTARY ASSISTANCE
Apart from the civil lawsuits which might arise as a result of providing “grossly negligent” assistance (toward which the Good Samaritan Act seems primarily directed), an individual who gets involved in an emergency situation without first being ordered to do so may very well find themselves subject to criminal charges. The charges can range from simple misdemeanors all the way up to felony charges, depending on how the prosecuting agency decides to proceed, and could carry penalties ranging from fines to prison time if the case ends with a conviction.
In fact, as recently as November of 2015, a former Marine, Rachelle Fernandez, attempted to assist police and stop a car thief in West Valley City by obstructing his progress using her own vehicle. As a result, she was charged with two Class B Misdemeanors: one for interfering with an arrest and one for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. Although her intervention came after police had unsuccessfully attempted to stop the thief for more than 20 minutes (and may have contributed to the end of the chase some 30 seconds later, without any injuries), it was nevertheless interpreted by the officers as more of an impediment than assistance. Her case remains pending as of the date of this article.
Ironically, it seems that circumstances here in Utah are precisely opposite of those depicted in the Seinfeld finale: individuals are encouraged not to become involved in an emergency situation unless specifically commanded to do so. While it is easy to understand the intent behind such a position – to maintain control over such a situation – it nevertheless leaves one significant question unaddressed: what is a citizen to do when authorities do not have control over an emergency situation? Given the potential for such severe penalties should an attempt at rendering assistance be misinterpreted, it seems that, for the moment, the safer course of action is indeed inaction. Whether or not this is the moral course of action is, of course, a matter of ongoing debate.
Photo Courtesy of: Stuart Miles@freedigitalphotos.net