For many individuals in society, a general understanding of what response is appropriate to take in moments of immense stress and trouble may be distorted from depictions of heroism seen in movies. Whilst movies and TV shows often intend to depict crime and the criminal process, it is, unfortunately, unlikely that each depiction is accurate in nature. Rather, it is more often seen that many depictions of the crime and criminal process are highly fantasised and glorified. Often, what is thought of as a general understanding is skewed as a result of the general public’s detachment and fragmented understanding of the law. Whilst it is quite unlikely that this article will provide an extensive list of every action necessary regarding how one should behave at a crime scene; the aim of this piece is to give a rather general and broader understanding of the “do’s and don’ts” if ever in a crime scene, as advised by a law firm in Sydney; whether you are the victim, bystander or accused wrongdoer.
Before learning the “do’s and don’ts” of how to act at a crime scene, it is rather helpful to know what a crime scene actually is and how it is established. Part seven of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act outlines that a crime scene is established when a police officer reasonably suspects that it is necessary to preserve or search and gather evidence in connection with an indictable offence committed. Knowing what a crime scene is and the importance of a crime scene in gathering evidence for a case places a certain level of importance on what actions and inactions an individual should reasonably take if ever found in a crime scene.
The first fundamental inaction during a crime scene is to never interfere or hinder the course of justice. Tampering with evidence is a crime according to s317 of The Crimes Act 1900. Touching or tampering with evidence could actually mean that you are, in fact, the villain in this crime scene. In New South Wales if a person conceals or destroys evidence, they could be imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years. This is largely because when law enforcement approach a crime scene they take it as their one and only opportunity to preserve and recover evidence, this evidence will eventually guide them in the course of justice. If evidence is tampered with, the outcome of a serious investigation could be altered.
Whilst the social expectation on helping and doing what is necessary is important for society to run smoothly, it is often lesser known that bystanders under the common law have no duty to rescue another where there is no pre-existing relationship—as outlined by Justice Brennan at 477-81 in Shire Council v Heyman (1985). There is no absolute expectation for a bystander if they find themselves in the middle of a crime scene to “play hero” if it will put them at any risk of danger.
There is however a fine line to play being a passive bystander with a number of exceptions to keep in mind. Whilst there is no duty for you as a bystander with no pre-existing relationship to the victim in the crime scene, it is very different if you are an individual that caused harm or had the capacity to help. Justice Brennan outlines this in Sutherland Shire Council v Heyman (1985): if you were to cause harm or danger to another individual then there is indeed an expectation for you to help.
The second exception is seen in the case of Horsley v Maclaren (1971); a form of duty is created if you have a responsibility where you are due to act where rescue was needed. This responsibility can be seen between the relationship of employers and their employees or teachers and students. Lastly, the final exception is that medical practitioners are required to come to the aid of an individual. The case of Lowns v Woods (1996) set precedent for this. If you are a trained professional that is able to provide assistance, it is your duty to help in a crime scene. However, if you are in the circumstance of an ordinary person with no attachment to the crime scene there is no required duty of care under Australian common law for you to fulfil—any law firm in Sydney, or the rest of Australia, would advise you not to try and play the hero in this case.
Alternatively, if you ever do find yourself in a moment where there is an opportunity for law enforcement to preserve and gather evidence it is important to call emergency services for help. It is highly encouraged by emergency forces that if people find themselves in a crime scene, to call “000”. By calling for help and assisting police officers, you are assisting those in need greatly, and at the same time not interfering or risking your own safety.
Being caught in the middle of a crime scene is a daunting experience, one in which the actions you take following are of high importance but not largely regarded or widely known. It’s important that individuals know and understand their rights before they get caught in a situation where they are not sure if they are doing the right thing. Sadly, most people get most understandings of right or wrong from television shows or movies. We know however those such depictions of crime and the criminal process are largely glorified and, in fact, plainly wrong.