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Is it ever mandatory to call the police or other emergency service for people? For example, say a friend has suicidal thoughts. Could you ever be breaking the law by not calling the police in such a situation?

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    Based on some of the answers, it might be helpful to distinguish if you mean calling the police, versus reporting to any form of authority or emergency service. In your example, if there was mandatory reporting for suicidal thoughts, the police would not, and should never be, the first go-to when looking for help in cases of a mental health crisis.
    – RToyo
    Jul 25 at 16:16
  • Seems relevant, shanephelpslaw.com/the-atticus-files/2021/november/…. Basically, you should report life-threatening things unless there's zero chance that they charge you as an accessory to a crime.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jul 25 at 18:17
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    @RToyo My question is on whether reporting to a third party in general is ever mandatory, so I updated my question to be broader. Thanks for the suggestion.
    – The Editor
    Jul 25 at 18:19
  • Related: law.stackexchange.com/q/19636/3569
    – gerrit
    Jul 26 at 7:28

5 Answers 5

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A person may be a "mandatory reporter", which means that in some jurisdiction, if you have a certain relationship to a person suspected to be "problematic", in a particular manner, you may be required by law to report those facts to a particular authority. There are a lot of "ifs" in these requirements. For instance, in Washington, RCW 74.34.020 defines a set of "mandated reporters", for abuse of vulnerable adults. The trigger conditions are "abandonment, abuse, financial exploitation, or neglect", and a mandatory reporter reports to the Department of Social and Health Services. I'm not a mandatory reporter, but school personnel and health care workers (inter alios) are. This document summarizes the various legal requirements by state.

In Oregon, a hospital is required to report an attempted suicide, and you report to the Oregon Public Health Division. An exhaustive search of all such laws would be impractical, but based on the laws that I reviewed, there are some general features of mandatory reports. First, the person required to report has to have a special duty of care, for example they are law enforcement, a health care professional, etc. and these laws do not impose a requirement on everybody. Second, the individuals that they are supposed to report about are "vulnerable", however that is defined by law – usually, the implication is that they are not in a mental state that they can take full care of themselves. Third, the report is made to some supervisory social services agency, which is then responsible for taking further action (to prevent the harm). However, health care workers in California are required to report suspected domestic violence to the police. It is unlikely that any jurisdiction in the US requires reporting suicide to the police, since suicide is not a crime in the US, and the police are not a social service agency, they are a law enforcement agency (no law is being broken).

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    Thank you for your reply! If I remember right, do (public?) attorneys qualify as mandatory reporters? Also, isn't suicide a crime in at least some U.S. states?
    – The Editor
    Jul 25 at 13:00
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    What is a public attorney? Jul 25 at 16:03
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    Suicide is not a crime in any state. Attorneys-client communications are privileged (meaning that disclosure is prohibited), but in some states, the privilege does not hold when a client discloses an intent to commit a crime in the future, and the attorney may be required to report a threat.
    – user6726
    Jul 25 at 16:21
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    @user6726 "Attorneys-client communications are privileged (meaning that disclosure is prohibited)," Not quite. There is no prohibition on the client disclosing privileged communications. It is just that their disclosure cannot be compelled, and the lawyer may not disclose without the client's permission. Jul 25 at 23:08
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    @DavidSchwartz Doesn't death end criminal proceedings anyways? What kind of affirmative defence can you put forward as a dead person? Jul 27 at 7:08
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In the US there are very few situations where any requirement to help or report a situation exists. Some people, for example certain professionals taking care of children, have the status of “mandatory reporters” of child abuse allegation or evidence.

You might remember in the final episodes of Seinfeld the group is arrested for mocking someone in trouble rather than helping. They apparently ran afoul of a local, odd ball duty-to-rescue law. This is an anomaly.

In the Wikipedia page for duty to rescue you will see that in common law countries there is no such duty in general. Exceptions are in cases where you caused the hazard in the first place or for certain special relations between you and the person in trouble.

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    "This is an anomaly": I thought it was "fiction"!
    – phoog
    Jul 25 at 8:33
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    On Germany the would have run afoul of a local, odd ball duty-to-rescue was that applies in the whole country, and if you are caught not helping, that's not only legally quite bad for you, but everyone will look at you as a most despicable individual.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 25 at 11:18
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    @gnasher729 Yehbut - everyone knows Seinfeld is set in the US, not Germany, so a duty-to-rescue law is oddball. Jul 25 at 15:08
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    In the U.S., even the police famously have no duty to rescue. Jul 25 at 16:06
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica if it's not German, why is it called "sein" and "Feld"? Checkmate, atheists.
    – user253751
    Jul 26 at 11:43
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Requirements to report crimes are relatively rare. One common example involves money laundering.

For example, in , Section 330 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 requires, under specific circumstances, a person in the "regulated sector" to report suspicions of money laundering to a nominated officer or a person authorised by the National Crime Agency. In the case of the former the nominated officer in turn is required to report to a person authorised by the NCA, pursuant to Section 331. Schedule 9 defines what is meant by the regulated sector.

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While "breaking the law" typically suggests something like a criminal offense, there are other considerations not mentioned above where failing to call for help could give rise to legal consequences.

Anytime someone else could have legal liability to you for compensatory damages on almost any theory, you have an obligation to mitigate damages, and so, if you could potentially mitigate the harm to yourself and you fail to do so, you could be denied recovery for avoidable damages.

Also, while only a few states have a "duty to rescue", in situations where you put someone in harms way through your actions, or deny them an ability to take care of themselves (e.g. by putting them in custody) you have a duty to make things right by any means possible. Similarly, if someone is entrusted to your care (e.g. you are a babysitter) you may have an affirmative duty to seek help.

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In this case, I wouldn't call the police, but a help organization instead. Your friend needs to talk to a psychologist, not the police. In most countries, there are organizations that offer support by phone for such situations. The Wikipedia article Crisis Hotline may be of some help. It even contains phone numbers for the US.

As far as I know, most countries require you to help or call for help if you see an emergency (or suspect that some bad thing is about to happen). They don't require you to call the police.

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    This answer has a serious error as far as the U.S. is concerned. Almost no jurisdiction in the U.S. has a broad, general, legal requirement to help or report. Jul 24 at 21:28
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    @TheEditor Yes. What does the victim need most in a car accident? A medic or somebody to apportion blame? The later is necessary in the end, but not the most urgent thing.
    – PMF
    Jul 25 at 6:25
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    @GeorgeWhite, how is it in error? It clearly says "most countries", without indicating any particular one would be included. The fact that the US isn't like most countries doesn't contradict that statement.
    – ilkkachu
    Jul 25 at 9:01
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    @ChrisH the question is tagged united-states.
    – phoog
    Jul 25 at 11:43
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    @PMF In the US, you are not generally required to report witnessing a car accident, not even if someone is hurt. Most (maybe all?) states have a requirement to report serious accidents if you were driving a vehicle that was involved, but nothing for witnesses--not even for passengers. (Details vary as to what is considered "serious" and how quickly you must report it.) (Of course most people will call for help if anyone is injured, regardless of if they are involved or not, but it's not a legal requirement.) Jul 25 at 14:38

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