Omission in the Criminal Law

An omission is a failure to act when action is prescribed. While certain omissions can warrant fairly severe punishments in the criminal law of the United States, these offenses are not exactly “crimes” in the sense that murder, theft and arson are crimes. After all, when you think of causation, how much harm to society can be caused by an omission?

Ah, well, it depends on the responsibilities one is entrusted with, doesn’t it. For example, it’s not technically a crime to sit idly by and watch a child drown in a pool. Despicable, yes, but not illegal (in some jurisdictions, anyway). That is, assuming you don’t know the child or have anything to do with him. On the other hand, if you’re a parent or relative, or if you’ve in some way communicated to the parents that you’ll take responsibility for the child, then failing to act could be construed as the proximate cause of the child’s death. In this case, an omission could be slapped with felony murder charges. Well, this is not an “omission” as far a the criminal law is concerned, but instead a direct link of causation from an action to a guilty party. (It’s late, I’m making myself dizzy here.) If you did this awful thing, you fiend, then you would be tried (and most likely convicted) as though you’d killed the child with your own hands.

When it comes down to actual criminal charges for omission, things get (thankfully) a lot less colorful. The kinds of things that people get smacked by the criminal law for not doing are, to list a few,

  1. failure to remain at the scene of an accident,
  2. failure to report a death or the location of a corpse,
  3. failure to take a breathalyser test when lawfully requested,
  4. failure to obey a court order,

and so on. Omissions can even really be quite serious. After all, what did one of the most famous and murderous gangsters in history, Al Capone, go to Alcatraz for? Failure to pay his taxes.