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Thread: Is This a Real Law?

  1. #1

    Is This a Real Law?

    I caught the second half of the finale of "Seinfeld" earlier this evening, and it got me to thinking: is there really a "Good Samaritan Law" in effect anywhere in the U.S. of A.? One that says that a citizen has to interfere whenever he/she sees a crime being committed and do his/her best to help anyone being victimized? (That's what got the Seinfeld gang a year in prison.)
    If there is such a law, what are the parameters? If the crime-committing perpetrator is carrying a weapon (gun) in plain sight, does the witness still have to brave a bullet to the brainpan to render assistance to a dope who won't give up his wallet and the thirteen dollars it contains, or will just phoning the cops suffice? What if the witness is an eighty year old woman or a thirteen year old wheelchair rider? Do they go to the slam if they decide that discretion most definitely is the better part of valor?
    If the law's real, just what would you old reprobates do in a typical situation? Jump the jerk or jump for cover?
    I've been on the wrong side of law breaking activities (though not for years and years -- in case anyone's monitoring this site -- and never armed), and I know that I wouldn't want to try to stop an eleven-year-old, adrenalin-high me as I raced, shitting my pants, out of a convenience store with the contents of the cash register in my hands.
    As "Mr. Pink" (Steve Buscemi) says in RESERVOIR DOGS, "The choice between ten years or moving some dumbass civilian out of my way is no choice at all." Pete "the Cowardly" Leo.

  2. #2
    Well . . . is it? PeteLeo.

  3. #3
    Dan Gunter

    There are two kinds of "Good Samaritan" laws. One kind is pretty common: it provides that a person who stops to render aid in an emergency situation cannot be held liable for injuries caused in that attempt.

    The other kind says that there is an affirmative duty to come to the aid of a person in an emergency situation. According to this website, three states have a duty to render aid to an injured person:


    In general, though, there is no such duty. The old illustration was that, under the common law, you could see someone drowning and take a seat on the end of the dock, with a flotation device readily available, and merrily watch the person drown. You couldn't take affirmative steps that would harm the person--but you could simply watch the person suffer. (The rule is different if you have some preexisting duty to the victim.)

    I don't understand the laws referenced on the website listed above as varying from this rule. You have identified the policy reasons for this rule: people should not have to put themselves in harm's way.

    Here's an illustration: A few weeks ago, my beloved wife and I were enjoying an anniversary dinner at Flying Fish restaurant here in Seattle. I had gotten us a great table in the corner, looking out on First and Bell. My wife had gone away from the table briefly. In her absence, I watched a scene unfold in which two middle-aged men--one white, one black--were having some altercation on the streetcorner right outside my window. Both men were dressed somewhat raggedly. The white man had on a blue-jean jacket and a fedora; he looked a bit like a meaner version of Dr. John. He was also talking on a cell phone during portions of the altercation.

    At one point, the white man took down the black man. The black man was on his face, with the white man's knee on his shoulder. The white man had a grip on the middle and ring fingers of the black man's right hand and was twisting his arm back.

    At that time, I called 9-1-1. As I was describing the scene to the operator, the white man got up, let up the black man, and began pushing the black man up Bell past the window where I was on the phone. The white man saw me through the window and flipped out of his jacket pocket a patch emblazoned "POLICE": he was an undercover officer. I explained the situation to the 9-1-1 operator, and the event ended--at least for me.

    But as I sat pondering the situation, it occurred to me that--had the white man been a bad guy and not a cop--he might have pulled out a gun and shot me through the window. Or he might have come in the restaurant and tried to beat me up. (And, given that he was bigger and no doubt better trained than me, and that I have a pretty bum right shoulder, he probably could have beaten me up.)

    I think those scenarios are pretty unlikely, but who knows? I'm glad that I made the call, and I'd do it again. But no one should be put in the position of having to decide whether to make such a call.

    So, unless there's something strange somewhere that I don't know about, I don't think that there's a general duty to aid others.

    By the way, I thought the final episode of "Seinfeld" was pretty weak for a variety of reasons. But I think that it was hard to have much sympathy for Jerry and friends given how heartless they were at the beginning of the episode. Of course, the show was emphasizing how shallow and self-centered they had always been--but perhaps it overemphasized that point.


  4. #4
    I believe Vermont has a Good Samaritan law. It requires that a person must expend reasonable efforts to help someone in trouble or else faces a fine. I imagine that would exclude facing a bullet to help someone but I haven't read the case law.

    There are actually a number of situations that require someone to render aid to another. For instance: (1) there are special relationships such as parent-child, husband-wife and life guard-swimmer, which require the person to make a reasonable effort to help the other person in trouble; (2) if someone begins to help another in trouble, that person cannot abandon his efforts before completion of the aid; (3) if someone places another person in jeopardy, that person must aid that person and get them out of jeopardy. There are probably other situations but I finished law school some time ago and forgot them. It also varies by state.

    In general though, one person does not have a duty to render aid to another. In the most infamous case, Kitty Genovese was stabbed a number of times by an attacker outside her apartment in New York and cried for someone to help her for a couple of hours. The attacker kept returning and repeatedly stabbed her. She eventually died. Her neighbors heard and saw what happened but did nothing - not even a phone call to the police. One couple actually turned out their lights to get a better view. Yet those people did not violate any laws. They were under no duty to help her in any way - not even something as simple as calling the police.

  5. #5
    Dan Gunter
    The following link says there are five states with "duty to act" laws:


  6. #6
    I read about the Kitty Genovese case and
    was struck by the fact that she was killed
    in a middle class area, Kew Gardens in
    Queens, New York, in 1964. She was
    coming home at late at night after
    working as a manager in a bar. Although
    she was attacked a number of times over a
    period of about 45 minutes (as I recall),
    no one helped her or called the police.

    After moving from Montana to Inglewood,
    California, which is in the Los Angeles area,
    I was struck by the fact that that neighbors
    were much less likely to know each other in the
    latter. Of course, I was about ten years old
    at the time. This could explain a situation
    like the Kitty Genovese case somewhat.
    I can't imagine something like the Kitty
    Genovese murder happening in Montana.
    In fact, I think that the attacker or attackers
    would have been shot by a citizen.

    In 1997, there was a murder of a 7-year-old
    girl in a hotel-casino complex in Primm, Nevada
    (which is located about forty miles southwest of
    Las Vegas, Nevada. It turned out that an
    18-year-old man abducted the girl in an
    arcade and murdered her into a restroom stall.
    The man's friend, also 18 years old, didn't
    do anything to help the girl. There is an
    incrediable amount of articles pertaining
    to this case on the internet.

    - Chuck Johnston

  7. #7
    The Genovese killing took about forty minutes, not a couple of hours like I wrote. I just reread an article on the crime to refresh my memory and my original recollection was incorrect.

    Whether such apathy is particular to urban areas is debatable. The amazing thing was that about 38 people heard the attack but did nothing. This episode really hurt New York's reputation for a long time and became a part of the story of New York's decline from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

  8. #8
    Here very recently, a woman went to a very populated pier around lunchtime and threw her young (all under 5) children into the bay. Not a soul interceeded and they all died. Police didn't arrive for 10 minutes and were only able to find one body. It was a sunny day and there are always dozens if not hundreds of people milling about. People are afraid to get involved, or risk being sued if they do given our litigious society.

  9. #9
    Looking on the internet, I found a mountain of
    information on the murder of Kitty Genovese.
    There seems to be some dispute in regards to
    how many people witnessed the said murder.
    Of course, I was wondering if a person is
    a witness if he or she heard the screams of
    the victim as she was being killed, but didn't
    see the murder taking place.

    I don't know if people have noticed the
    difference between living in a small town
    or a big city. Believe me, someone wouldn't
    want to stay in a small town if the purpose
    is to hide. Yes, I know that there are people
    who hid on a ranch or a farm, but that is
    different. I remember about hearing about
    one ranch hand who didn't want to go into
    town. It turned out that he was wanted
    by the law.

    In the 1997 Primm Murder Case, the seven-
    year-old victim also was molested.

    - Chuck Johnston

  10. #10
    You can't legislatively force people to be good samaritans. But the approach that immunizes them from prosecution should they decide to do the right things seems eminently sensible to me. Every state should have a law of this type. But even so, people will still stand on the pier and watch babies drown; it's human nature. Some people just don't care.

  11. #11
    I also don't know how a good samaritan law could
    drawn up, but I can tell you that David Cash,
    the friend of the murderer-rapist of seven-year-
    old girl in Primm, Nevada, drew alot of unwanted
    attention when he later went to school at Cal.

    - Chuck Johnston

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