People v. Beardsley
Dressler, p. 118-121
Facts: The defendant holed up with the alleged victim at his residence and drank for an entire weekend except for Sunday afternoon. The victim apparently overdosed morphine and died after the defendant left her with a neighbor. The defendant was charged with manslaughter. The defendant appealed.
Issue: Was Beardsley responsible for an omission that would make him liable for Burns’s death?
Rule: Omission is defined as the neglect of a legal duty, rather than a merely moral duty.
Analysis: The court finds that Burns was not Beardsley’s wife or child and Beardsley was not Burns’s custodian or caretaker. The court notes that Burns was an adult and cavorted with Beardsley of her own free will. The court suggests that there would be no question of a legal duty if the principals in this case had been two men. It should not make a difference, it is argued, that the victim was a woman. The court concludes that Beardsley had no legal duty towards Burns.
Conclusion: The court set aside the conviction and let Beardsley go free.
Notes and Questions
1. I disagree with Hughes in that he neglects one’s duty to oneself. If the court set up incentives such that everyone had the legal duty to help others upon pain of punishment, the potential “helplessly ill person” will in turn be given less incentive to help themselves when they are likely to be the cheapest cost absorber in a given situation. I believe that if you accept Hughes’s argument, you must also accept that Beardsley would have to be held responsible for failing to come to the aid of a male drinking partner. I believe that this is bad policy, but that it is not as far fetched as the court would have us believe.
2. This sounds like the “good Samaritan” rule.
3. I believe this is a duty that could be appropriately imposed by statute, that is: if you have some connection to the apparent perpetrator of a crime, then you have some responsibility to intervene to help the victim. I don’t think Nix would have a duty to act if she was riding in a taxi and heard someone crying for help in the trunk, even if she was left alone in the taxi for a time. Generally, however, this is a situation where we would like to create a strong incentive for someone with the capacity to act to do so to prevent harm.
4. Aha…this sounds like a classic collective action problem. People fail to ask themselves, “If not me, who?” They all assume someone else is going to take care of it, and therefore no one takes care of it.
1. So omissions can be more ambiguous than actions. We don’t know where to draw the line between punishable and non-punishable omission. We also don’t want to encourage people to intervene when they might do more harm than good. A difference is asserted between positively causing a harm and negatively withholding a benefit. I don’t think we should punt on omission as an element of crime just because it’s difficult. We should draw the lines we can draw while assuring fair notice and lenity, but when the omission is clearly abhorrent to society (a retributivist justification) or when an inexpensive act could prevent an excessively expensive harm (a utilitarian justification), it ought to be a crime.
2. This does not seem like a good policy. What is the benefit in holding someone blameless when they won’t come forward to report knowledge of an impending crime? We ought to give that potential informant a strong incentive to come forward. I suppose we do so with positive rewards, like on “Unsolved Mysteries” (these are our “carrots”) rather than with negative punishments (“sticks”). Is this adequate?