Should there be a legal obligation to act as a good Samaritan?

People holding hands.
People holding hands. Illustrated | Gettyimages

Racial tensions ignited in New York City recently after a 30-year-old homeless Black man named Jordan Neely was choked to death in a subway car while allegedly suffering a mental health crisis. The man who restrained Neely, Daniel Penny, was charged with second-degree manslaughter, and is facing up to 15 years in prison.

Neely's death raised a question: Should bystanders — such as those who were in the subway car while Neely was attacked — be legally obligated to step in and act as good Samaritans during a confrontation? At least 10 people observed Neely being held down, The New York Times reported. Video of the incident showed one man telling Penny he was "going to kill" Neely, but that man did not appear to intervene, and neither did anyone else. State law did not require them to, the Times noted.

"No U.S. state explicitly requires civilian strangers to physically intervene when they see an adult in danger, though some impose a duty to report wrongdoing and two set an ambiguous standard of rendering assistance," the Times added. There has been an overall spike in violent crime, specifically murders, in the past few years, FBI data shows. As violence increases, the Times said, "the value of [good Samaritan] legislation has been debated."

Samaritan laws can save lives — but need fixing

Some people may not get involved in an emergency if they fear getting in trouble with the law themselves. While most good Samaritan laws provide legal immunity for people who call for help, "studies find that fear of arrest is a common barrier to calling 911 ... and that those with knowledge of their state's good Samaritan law are more likely to call for help," wrote Amy Bush Stevens for the Columbus Dispatch.

In Ohio, for example, the state's laws are "riddled with limitations and complexities that render it almost useless." The laws should be altered to ensure people have "the ability to call for help without fear of being caught up in the criminal justice system," Stevens added, noting that "a simplified good Samaritan law would save lives."

Even in online spaces, digital users "should be held criminally accountable for failing to report specified violent offenses of which they are aware," Zachary Kaufman wrote for the Boston College Law Review. There should also be changes, Kaufman added, because many laws requiring a "duty to report," such as in cases of sexual assault, "arguably apply only to witnesses who are physically present, which limits their potential effectiveness today."

Samaritanism has been hijacked

The idea of good Samaritanism has actually allowed vigilantism to thrive, with someone like Neely "framed not as a citizen with rights worth respecting but as a dangerous nuisance who deserved his fate," Jamelle Bouie wrote for the Times. The phrase "has come to mean any person who helps someone else in distress, but the parable of the good Samaritan is a little more complicated."

While most good Samaritans wouldn't "use lethal force or act as a vigilante in defense of order," the possibility that others would "is evidence enough of a sickness that festers in too many American hearts," Bouie added.

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