The failure to perform a public duty.
Misprision is a versatile word that can denote a number of offenses. It can refer to the improper performance of an official duty. In Arkansas, for example, rule 60 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a judgment, decree, or order may be vacated or modified "for misprisions of the clerk." In this sense misprision refers to neglect, mistake, or subterfuge on the part of the court clerk who performed the paperwork for the judgment, decree, or order.
Misprision also can refer to seditious or rebellious conduct against the government or the courts. This is an archaic usage of the word. Organized rebellion against the government is now uniformly referred to as sedition or insurrection.
The most familiar and popular use of the term misprision describes the failure to report a crime. In England, beginning in the thirteenth century, the failure to report a crime became itself a crime. According to tradition, it was a citizen's duty to "raise the hue and cry" by reporting crimes, especially felonies, to law enforcement authorities (Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 92 S. Ct. 2646, 33 L. Ed. 2d 626 , quoting william blackstone).
The crime of misprision still exists in England, but it has never been fully embraced in the United States. The first Congress passed a misprision of felony statute in 1789. The statute holds, "Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony … conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States" is guilty of misprision of felony and can be punished with up to three years in prison.
Under the federal statute, the prosecution must prove the following elements to obtain a misprision of felony conviction: (1) another person actually committed a felony; (2) the defendant knew that the felony was committed; (3) the defendant did not notify any law enforcement or judicial officer; and (4) the defendant took affirmative steps to conceal the felony. Precisely what constitutes active concealment is a question of fact that depends on the circumstances of the case. Lying to a police officer satisfies the requirement, but beyond that generally accepted rule, little is certain about the definition of active concealment.
Almost every state has rejected the crime of misprision of felony. Thus, persons are under no duty to report a crime. One policy reason for rejecting misprision is that the crime is vague and difficult to apply to real situations. Another reason is that the crime is seen as an unacceptable encroachment on civil freedom. In 1822 the U.S. Supreme Court cautioned against misuse of the misprision of felony statute, stating, "It may be the duty of a citizen to … proclaim every offense which comes to his knowledge; but the law which would punish him in every case, for not performing this duty, is too harsh" (Marbury v. Brooks, 20 U.S. [7 Wheat.] 556, 5 L. Ed. 522).
The Supreme Court has not completely abandoned the duty to report criminal activity. In Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 100 S. Ct. 1358, 63 L. Ed. 2d 622 (1980), the High Court held that a court can increase a criminal defendant's sentence if the defendant refuses to cooperate with government officials investigating a related crime. Also, a journalist who has knowledge of a crime may be compelled to reveal the source of that knowledge (Branzburg v. Hayes).
The federal misprision of felony statute remains on the books, but the crime rarely has been prosecuted. On the state level, most states have either abolished or refused to enact misprision of felony laws. South Carolina is the only state that has prosecuted the misprision of a felony.
In State v. Carson, 262 S.E.2d 918, 274 S.C. 316 (1980), Isaac E. Carson, the eyewitness to a murder, refused to give law enforcement authorities information regarding the murder because he feared for his life if he cooperated with authorities. Carson was prosecuted and convicted of misprision of felony and sentenced to three years in prison.
The prosecution of Carson was based on the common law. South Carolina did not have a misprision of felony statute. Instead the prosecution relied on title 14, chapter 1, section 50, of the Code of Laws of South Carolina. Under this statute the common law of England continues in effect in South Carolina. On appeal by Carson, the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the conviction. According to the court, the prosecution was valid because misprision of felony was a crime at common law in England and because the South Carolina legislature had not taken steps to repeal the common-law crime of misprision of felony.
The crime of misprision of felony is similar to the crime of acting as an accessory after the fact because both crimes involve some affirmative act to conceal a crime. Two basic differences are that the crime of misprision is committed even if the defendant does not give aid to the criminal and misprision is committed only if the underlying crime is completed.
Gould, Keri A. 1993. "Turning Rat and Doing Time for Uncharged, Dismissed, or Acquitted Crimes: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Promote Respect for the Law?" New York Law School Journal of Human Rights 10.
Guerra, Sandra. 1996. "Family Values?: The Family as an Innocent Victim of Civil Drug Asset Forfeiture." Cornell Law Review 81.
Mosteller, Robert P. 1992. "Child Abuse Reporting Laws and Attorney-Client Confidences: The Reality and the Specter of Lawyer as Informant." Duke Law Journal 42.