Misprision

The term “misprision” refers to the deliberate act of hiding the awareness of a crime. For example, misprision exists when someone has knowledge that a crime is about to occur, and yet does nothing to stop it.

Another example of misprision is clerical misprision, which is typically less serious and occurs when the clerk of the court makes a mistake that the courts can correct later on. To explore this concept, consider the following misprision definition.

Definition of Misprision

Noun

  1. The deliberate concealment of the knowledge of a crime.
  2. A clerical error made by the clerk of the court either by mistake or as part of a fraud.

Origin

1375–1425         Late Middle English

What is Misprision?

Understanding “misprision” meaning give us two connotations. First, and more commonly, it describes the act of having knowledge about a crime and yet doing nothing to stop it from happening. Second, it can describe a clerical error made by a clerk of the court, either by accident or fraudulently, which the court can correct later on.

Misprision of a Felony

It is illegal to conceal a felony crime. Therefore, misprision of a felony is a crime classified as a misdemeanor in many cases, and it refers to the failure to report one’s knowledge of a felony to the police. If the individual is a close family member of the felon, the police may make an exception for a misprision of a felony on the ground that such disclosure could lead to self-incrimination.

However, for this to be a crime, the person must take active measures to hide the crime, rather than simply fail to report it. For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act provides that, if a person is aware that he is the subject of a federal investigation, the law prohibits him from deleting his browser history on his computer. If he deletes it anyway, this may be a misprision of a felony.

Elements of Misprision of Felony

The 9th Circuit Court elaborated on what makes up the elements of misprision of felony when deciding the matter of United States v. Olson in 2017. For instance, in order to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a person is guilty of this crime, the government must be able to prove the following elements of misprision of felony:

  • That the individual alleged to have committed the crime did, in fact, commit the crime
  • That the individual accused of this crime was fully aware that what he was witnessed was a crime
  • That the witness failed to tell the authorities what he knew
  • That the witness took active steps toward concealing the crime

What was so important about the 9th Circuit’s decision in this case is that the Court expanded the knowledge section of the elements of misprision of felony. Specifically, the Court added that the government must not only prove that the witness knew the individual committed a crime, but also that the witness knew that crime was a felony. (For more information on this case, please see below.)

Consider the following as an instance of what may be one of the most common misprision examples:

Tom witnesses his brother, Steve, shoot Steve’s girlfriend, killing her. Tom knows that murder is not only a crime but a felony. But, it’s his brother, so he doesn’t tell the authorities, and he helps Steve hide the girlfriend’s body. Tom would be guilty of this crime because he not only saw the crime and knew it was a felony, but he also actively helped Steve hide the evidence of the crime.

Examples of Misprision

When arguing cases of misprision of felony, the prosecution must be able to prove that the defendant knew the crime he was hiding was a felony. Therefore, examples of this crime typically consist of murder cases because there is no denying that murder is a felony. And so, in covering up a murder, there is no doubt that the defendant was hiding information about a serious crime.

Consider the case of U.S. v. Daniel (1821). Here, Lewis Daniel received an indictment in South Carolina, which charged him with being aware of and illegally concealing knowledge of a murder committed on the high sea by John Furlong. Misprision examples are not always about murder, though. Former Tennessee judge Richard Baumgartner received a conviction of misprision of felony after paying a former defendant who appeared before him in court to buy him drugs.

Obviously, the buying of drugs is a crime, and being a judge, there was no question that Baumgartner knew that what he was doing was wrong. But this crime came into play when Baumgartner lied to everyone from the assistant district attorney to judges that the defendant was doing well enough in his drug court to keep her out of jail.

Misprision of Treason

Misprision of treason is a federal offense. An individual commits misprision of treason when he:

  • Knows that someone is about to commit an act of treason against the U.S.
  • Does not report his knowledge to the President, a federal or state judge, or the State Governor

If the courts find an individual guilty of misprision of treason, the penalty for such a crime is a fine and a federal prison sentence of up to seven years. Depending on the state in which the person committed the crime, the state may also punish him in a separate criminal court act.

Misprision as a Deportable Offense

Misprision is a crime of moral turpitude. What this means is that, if an undocumented immigrant commits this crime, then the country can deport him, or send him back to his home country. For instance, the case of Matter of Mendez (2018) is an example of misprision as a deportable offense. Here, the respondent was a Dominican Republican citizen, though he was also a legally permanent U.S. resident.

In December of 2010, the respondent received a federal conviction on the misprision of a felony. When he applied for admission as a returning resident to the U.S. in March of 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed to have him deported based on his conviction. The Immigration Judge agreed with the DHS to categorize respondent’s misprision as a deportable offense. As such, the Judge ruled that the conviction ended respondent’s U.S. residency, which thereby made him ineligible for a deportation cancellation under the law.

Misprision Example Involving the Misappropriation of Funds

Perhaps one of the best misprision examples is the case of United States v. Olson, namely because the 9th Circuit created precedent by expanding on the requirements necessary to convict someone of misprision. Here, Robert Wells received a grant from the USDA to open a milk processing plant. Around the same time, Kyle Beus also received a grant from the USDA to open an ice cream and cheese manufacturing plant.

Karen Olson had an informal partnership with Wells. The three of them – Olson, Wells, and Beus – agreed to house their ventures in the same facility. However, unbeknownst to Olson and Wells, Beus inflated his paperwork to misappropriate funds to himself personally as “kickbacks.” Olson noted in her day planner that she was aware of what Beus was doing and that it was wrong.

Arrest and Trial

The police arrested Olson for misprision of felony once the USDA became aware of the false reports Beus was filing. Ultimately, the jury convicted Olson based on the principle that Olson was aware that Beus was submitting false reports to misappropriate grant funds provided to him by the USDA. Olson appealed, arguing that the government failed to prove that she knew she was hiding evidence of a crime that was serious enough to be a felony.

Appeal

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit oversaw Olson’s appeal. The Court set precedent by agreeing with Olson that the government should also prove not only that the defendant hid knowledge of the crime, but also that the defendant knew the crime he was covering up was a felony. However, the Court also held that the jury was correct in its finding Olson guilty of misprision of felony and so affirmed the decision of the lower court.

Said the Court, in its decision:

“We hold 18 U.S.C. § 4 requires the government to prove the defendant knew the principal engaged in conduct that satisfies the essential elements of the underlying felony and that the defendant knew such conduct was a felony.

To establish the latter, the government must prove the defendant knew the offense was punishable by death or a term of imprisonment exceeding one year. Sufficient evidence supports that finding here. For the reasons stated in this opinion and in a concurrently filed memorandum disposition, we affirm Olson’s conviction.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Self-Incrimination – The act of connecting oneself to a crime.
  • Treason – A crime involving the betraying of one’s country.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.

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