There are many different sets of laws in the United States. This post is not a comprehensive survey of every U.S. state and district and territory's laws on the subject. I also do not identify every single federal law reporting requirement that applies nationally.
Child Abuse Specific Duties To Report Crimes
Who Must Report Child Abuse?
Every U.S. state, territory and district provides that people in certain professions must report to the proper authorities all cases of child abuse of which they become aware.
These "mandatory reporters" generally include parents, teachers,
school administrators, clergy, medical professionals, therapists,
social workers, and others.
There is also a federal mandatory child abuse reporter law applicable to potential reporters on federal land or in a federally operated or
contracted facility. 42 U.S.C. § 13,031 (2000).
There are some states, however, in which anyone who suspects child abuse must report it to the proper authorities. New Jersey is one such state. Texas, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Florida, Tennessee, Utah, Delaware, and New Hampshire also have varying catch-all provisions that impose the duty to report child abuse on "any person," "any other person," or "any person, including but not limited to [certain categories of reporters]".
California and Nevada require people who personally witness a crime against a child to report it. CAL. PENAL CODE ANN. § 152.3 (2002); NEv. REV. STAT. ANN. 202.882 (2001).
When Must Child Abuse Be Reported?
As the first link above explains:
Once a mandatory reporter witnesses an act of abuse or finds evidence
of child abuse, he or she has a duty to report the incident to the
appropriate authorities. That usually includes sharing important
details about the incident, like the names of the victim and
Under California's Mandatory Reporting Laws (California Penal Code Sections 11164-11174.4):
A mandatory reporter does not have to actually witness a child being
abused or neglected. Rather, a “reasonable suspicion” from other
sources that child abuse or neglect has occurred is enough to trigger
What Are The Consequences For Failing To Report Child Abuse When Required To Do So?
Failure to report an incidence of child abuse is a misdemeanor offense in most states for people who have a duty to report it. But in cases were serious harm results it can be more serious misdemeanor. For example, in California:
If a professional required to report fails to do so, that person may
be charged with a misdemeanor offense punishable by:
imprisonment in a county jail for up to six months, and/or
a maximum fine of $1,000.
But, if the unreported instance of abuse or neglect
leads to death or great bodily injury, the person can be punished
imprisonment for up to one year in county jail, and/or
a maximum fine of $5,000.
In practice, these statutes are usually enforced only in the clearest cases when an individual's personal duty to act was clear.
Mandatory reporting laws were enacted to clarify that sense of personal duty and not leaving the task of reporting suspected child abuse to someone else.
General Duties To Report Crimes
Under Federal Law
The main exceptions in federal law are treason and sedition for which there is a federal reporting requirement for all citizens.
Another important federal law obligation under 18 U.S.C. § 4, is that you may be obligated to report a crime if you are directly asked during a criminal investigation whenever:
You have knowledge of the commission of a felony;
The felony actually occurred; and
The felony is a federal offense;
If you willfully conceal the commission of a felony federal offense,
you can be charged with “misprision of a felony.” Misprision of a
felony is a form of obstruction of justice. If you are convicted, you
face up to a $250,000 fine, imprisonment up to three years, or both
fine and imprisonment.
A higher duty applies to certain federal officials charged with investigating crimes by federal officials.
But, you don't usually (outside of treason and sedition cases) have an affirmative duty to contact authorities about the crime that has been committed which you are aware of unless you are actually asked about it in a criminal investigation.
Under State Law
The vast majority of U.S. states do not have a duty to report any kind of crime (except as explained above).
But, there are at least eight U.S. states that are exceptions to the general rule.
Under Texas law you can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for failing to report an offense that resulted in serious bodily injury or death. This would arise, however, only when you learn that it actually has resulted in serious bodily injury or death, and you have reasonable certainty from your personal knowledge that indeed a crime has been committed and not merely a suspicion or a speculation. Under Texas Penal Code § 38-171:
(a) A person commits an offense if the person:
(1) observes the commission of a felony under circumstances in which a
reasonable person would believe that an offense had been committed in
which serious bodily injury or death may have resulted; and
(2) fails to immediately report the commission of the offense to a
peace officer or law enforcement agency under circumstances in which:
(A) a reasonable person would believe that the commission of the
offense had not been reported; and
(B) the person could immediately report the commission of the offense
without placing himself or herself in danger of suffering serious
bodily injury or death.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
Child abuse causing serious injury or death would generally be a felony on the person committing the child abuse (but not the person failing to report it).
In Ohio it's illegal to knowingly fail to report a felony. This is a much broader requirement and could include child abuse, but again you must have reasonable certainty from your personal knowledge that indeed a crime has been committed and not merely a suspicion or a speculation. OHIO REV. CODE ANN. § 2921.22 (2002) ("No person, knowing that a felony has been or is being committed, shall knowingly fail to report such information to law enforcement authorities.") And, this is not a particularly serious offense.
South Dakota also has a law similar to that of Ohio. S.D. CODIFIED LAWS § 22-11-12 (2002) ("Any person who, having knowledge, which is not privileged, of the commission of a felony, conceals the same, or does not immediately disclose such felony, with the name of the perpetrator thereof, and all the facts in relations thereto, to the proper authorities, shall be guilty of misprision of a felony.").
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania have laws that require someone who personally witnesses certain crimes to report them. See, e.g., MASS. GEN. LAWS ANN. ch. 268, § 40 (2002).
There are also at least a couple of states also mirror the federal government in having mandatory reporting for the general public only for treason. See 720 ILL. COMP. STAT. ANN. 5/30-2 (2002) ("A person owing allegiance to this State commits misprision of treason when he conceals or withholds his knowledge that another has committed treason against this State."); LA. REv. STAT. ANN. § 14:114 (2002) ("Misprision of treason is the concealment of treason, or the failure to disclose immediately all pertinent facts to proper authorities, by a person who has knowledge of the commission of the crime of treason.").
All of these offenses are only rarely enforced, but there are some prosecutions.
Academic Analysis And Review of The Law
Sandra Guerra Thompson has published a law review article entitled "The White-Collar Police Force: "Duty to Report" Statutes in Criminal Law Theory" 11(1) William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 3 (2002).
Relief From Civil Liability If You Report In Good Faith
In Colorado, the formal duty is seemingly even more broad under Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-8-115:
It is the duty of every corporation or person who has reasonable
grounds to believe that a crime has been committed to report promptly
the suspected crime to law enforcement authorities. Notwithstanding
any other provision of the law to the contrary, a corporation or
person may disclose information concerning a suspected crime to other
persons or corporations for the purpose of giving notice of the
possibility that other such criminal conduct may be attempted which
may affect the persons or corporations notified. When acting in good
faith, such corporation or person shall be immune from any civil
liability for such reporting or disclosure. This duty shall exist
notwithstanding any other provision of the law to the contrary; except
that this section shall not require disclosure of any communication
privileged by law.
But breach of this duty does not actually carry any criminal penalty, although it might conceivable be a basis for civil liability (although I've never seen a lawsuit brought on this basis).
Instead, the statute really exists primarily to protect people who do report crimes from any punishment for doing so.
In general, even when it is not a crime to fail to report suspected child abuse, there is immunity from civil liability, either by statute, or under common law tort doctrines (called a qualified privilege) for reporting in good faith (i.e. actually believing that a crime has been committed) a suspected crime.