Earlier this week, Chicago police arrested two suspects in the brutal sexual assault of a 15 year-old girl. The attack was recorded by one of the perpetrators who live streamed it on Facebook where it was viewed by about 40 people. The victim knew at least one of her attackers and was lured to a house where she was not allowed to leave. A teenager from the victim’s neighborhood alerted a family member after seeing the video on Facebook. The relative took screenshots of the attack to the mother which she later took to police. While videos like the one involved in this case make it easier for law enforcement to solve crimes and punish the perpetrators, their presence on social media can add extra trauma to victims.
Police say they have seen several criminal acts broadcast on social media in the last few months and they are growing increasingly frustrated by the number of individuals who watch the crimes being broadcast and do not call 911. Community activists in Chicago agree and wish there was a way to punish viewers. One such community activist said he hopes those who viewed the gang rape of the young woman and did not report it are criminally charged.
However, legal experts say charging viewers criminally for not calling authorities would be extremely difficult. Ordinary citizens do not have a duty to report a crime or to act to stop the commission of a crime, even if they witness it in person. There are some exceptions to the general rule though. For example, many states require people in certain professions to report suspicions of child abuse and some other crimes. Prosecutors would have to prove a viewer charged with a crime had a duty to report the crime that was recognized by the law, which is impossible in most instances.
Witnessing a crime on social media poses even more difficulty for law enforcement than witnessing a crime in person. Law enforcement would have to prove the individual who owned the account was the one who actually viewed the crime. Additionally, prosecutors would have to prove that the person who viewed the crime knew the act they were witnessing was real and a crime. With the ease and prevalence of programs like photoshop, many experts agree the public should be skeptical about what they view on the internet, which makes the job of law enforcement more difficult when attempting to prove the viewer knew what they were witnessing was real.
Legal experts think that in this case, a federal statute might actually make the job of prosecuting viewers easier for law enforcement. Because the victim in this case was 15 years old, the federal statute governing child pornography could be used to criminally charge viewers. Under federal law, an individual who possesses any images of the crime are guilty of possessing child pornography and just watching the video is grounds for culpability. Those who “like” or share the video could be charged with aiding the criminal act or distributing child pornography. In fact, the two suspects in this case were charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography in addition to a host of other criminal charges.