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Detroit can't charge bystanders who don't call the cops

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit police Chief James Craig had a warning recently for those who watched or videotaped two fights that drew wide attention online: “If you’re videotaping, as far as I’m concerned, you’re an actor in this.”

This video screen shot shows a fight in the streets in Detroit’s Greektown business district that was brazenly broadcast on Facebook Live and left one man in serious condition.

He went further: “Unless you take overt steps to assist us, like calling 911 ... you can’t just sit back and watch violent crime being committed.”

But Michigan has no such law forcing a call to 911 or taking action when they see a crime being committed, and experts, including defense attorneys, local law enforcement and even the Detroit Police Department admit there’s no legal basis for such charges. Michiganians have no legal obligation to assist in a police investigation or even to call police. And the presence of a camera phone, and uploading the incident online, doesn’t change that.

“There really is no law in place that we could press charges against those individuals,” said Michael Woody, director of media relations for the Detroit Police Department. “Your sense of duty is a morality thing and not a legal issue.”

Craig focused on the two fights — one at Rouge Park that left two women stabbed and one in Greektown that left a 23-year-old man hospitalized — where few or no calls were made to 911 and the melee continued.

Whether a local ordinance tackling the issue might be appropriate is something Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, whose district includes Greektown, will research and ponder, she told The News.

Sheffield has two concerns: First, that people would rather film violence than call the police, and second, that any ordinance, law or criminal charge would run the risk of getting young people into the criminal justice system.

“In situations where people are watching violence happen and it’s being glorified through posting it on social media, maybe we do need to look at ways we can go after them, but then I also don’t want to be criminalizing our young people,” Sheffield said. “If you’re talking about a fine, some of our young people are unemployed, and the poverty rate in the city is high, so are we putting our young people in a pipeline to criminalize?

“Trying to find ways we can expose youth to community service or training programs that can help them behave in better ways, yes,” Sheffield said, “but if it’s going to further criminalize them, I’m not interested.”

Margaret Raben, past president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, and a partner at Gurewitz and Raben, told The News that “as a citizen, I’m irked: Aren’t we all our brothers’ keepers? It is a sad commentary on the world we live in that someone would film this and not turn it over to the police. But that’s the difference between my view of the moral obligation and my understanding of the law.”

A fight at Rouge Park was recorded by bystanders Sunday.

And “as a defense attorney,” Raben said, “you have nothing to worry about. There is no legal obligation to call 911.”

Cliff Woodards II, a defense attorney at The Detroit Law Center, added that someone’s “mere presence” at a crime is not enough for a conviction. The prosecution would need to prove that the person aided in the event, not just that they filmed it and didn’t call 911.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State law professor and former federal prosecutor, asked: “How far should the state go in dictating how people interact in a private setting? Do we really want to say that people should have to intervene?”

“Do you punish (bystanders) as if they were assisting them in the crime?” Henning said. “How far do we want to impose liability on a bystander?”

The police department hopes that morality and culture can do what the law does not. If people can’t be compelled to act by the threat of punishment, can they be convinced to act because it’s the right thing to do? That’s something it will explore, Woody said, in collaboration with stakeholders in the church community.

“Although we have a generation of folks that have grown up on cellphones and fight videos, there’s something to be said for the human on the other side of that lens,” Woody said. “We have to find a way to draw their attention away from their devices and toward the humanity of what they’re trying to film. It’s a matter of reaching out and having these conversations with anyone who will listen.”