In the wake of widespread revelations about sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and others, the United States is reckoning with the past and present and searching for the means to prevent and punish such offenses in the future. The scourge of sexual crimes goes far beyond instances perpetrated by powerful men; this misconduct is rampant throughout the country. In some of these cases, third parties knew about the abuse and did not try to intervene. Scrutiny of—and the response to—such bystanderism is increasing, including in the legal world.
In order to align law and society more closely with morality, this Article proposes a more holistic, aggressive approach to prompt involvement by third parties who are aware of specific instances of sexual crimes in the United States. This Article begins by documenting the contemporary scope of sexual crimes in the United States and the crucial role bystanders play in facilitating them.
The Article next provides an overview and assessment of “Bad Samaritan laws”: statutes that impose a legal duty to assist others in peril through intervening directly (also known as the “duty to rescue”) or notifying authorities (also known as the “duty to report”). Such laws exist in dozens of foreign countries and, to varying degrees, in twenty-nine U.S. states, Puerto Rico, U.S. federal law, and international law. The author has assembled the most comprehensive global database of Bad Samaritan laws, which provides an important corrective to other scholars’ mistaken claims about the rarity of such statutes, particularly in the United States. Despite how widespread these laws are in the United States, violations are seldom, if ever, charged or successfully prosecuted.
Drawing on historical research, trial transcripts, and interviews with prosecutors, judges, investigators, and “upstanders” (people who intervene to help others in need), the Article then describes four prominent cases in the United States involving witnesses to sexual crimes. Each case provides insight into the range of conduct of both bystanders and upstanders.
Because not all such actors are equal, grouping them together under the general categories of “bystanders” and “upstanders” obscures distinct roles, duties, and culpability for violating those duties. Drawing on the case studies, this Article thus presents original typologies of bystanders (including eleven categories or sub-categories), upstanders (including seven categories), and both kinds of actors (including four categories), which introduce greater nuance into these classifications and this Article’s proposed range of legal (and moral) responsibilities. These typologies are designed to maximize generalizability to crimes and crises beyond sexual abuse.
Finally, the Article prescribes a new approach to the duty to report on sexual abuse and possibly other crimes and crises through implementing a combination of negative incentives (“sticks”) and positive incentives (“carrots”) for third parties. These recommendations benefit from interviews with sexual violence prevention professionals, police, legislators, and social media policy counsel. Legal prescriptions draw on this Article’s typologies and concern strengthening, spreading, and standardizing duty-to-report laws at the state and territory levels; introducing the first general legal duty to report sexual crimes and possibly other offenses (such as human trafficking) at the federal level; exempting from liability one of the two main bystander categories the Article proposes (“excused bystanders”) and each of its six sub-categories (survivors, “confidants,” “unaware bystanders,” children, “endangered bystanders,” and “self-incriminators”); actually charging the other main bystander category the Article proposes (“unexcused bystanders”) and each of its three sub-categories (“abstainers,” “engagers,” and “enablers”) with violations of duty-to-report laws or leveraging these statutes to obtain testimony from such actors; and more consistently charging “enablers” with alternative or additional crimes, such as accomplice liability. Social prescriptions draw on models and lessons from domestic and foreign contexts and also this Article’s typologies to recommend, among other initiatives, raising public awareness of duty-to-report laws and creating what the Article calls “upstander commissions” to identify and “upstander prizes” to honor a category of upstanders the Article proposes (“corroborated upstanders”), including for their efforts to mitigate sexual crimes. A combination of these carrots and sticks could prompt would-be bystanders to act instead as upstanders and help stem the sexual crime epidemic.