Thomas Gallagher has a long history of alcohol-related offenses and, sadly, it is not surprising that he was drunk when he caused the car crash that killed Meredith Demko earlier this month in West Lampeter, PA.
What is noteworthy is that the people in his car knew he was in no shape to drive. In statements to police, his two passengers reported seeing him drinking heavily and using heroin shortly before he got behind the wheel. Moreover, Gallagher must have been visibly impaired—the drugs aside, his BAC was three times the legal limit at the time of the crash.
The DA has vowed to make sure Gallagher receives a substantial sentence, but some in the community also want Gallagher’s passengers held responsible. Even if they couldn’t keep him from driving, they could have called the police. By doing nothing, some argue that the passengers are complicit in the fatal crash.
A duty to speak up?
A number of countries have “duty to rescue” laws that require people to assist others in danger or, at a minimum, contact law enforcement. And in the U.S., there are some situations where individuals are legally obligated to intervene if they believe someone may harm others. For example, many states require therapists and doctors to break confidentiality if their patient poses a clear threat.
When it comes to drunk driving, some jurisdictions allow bars or alcohol vendors to be prosecuted or sued for over-serving a person who goes on to cause a crash. However, in most cases there is no legal requirement for bystanders—or in this case passengers—to sound the alert. But should there be?
Drunk driving is everyone’s problem
Often, people around drunk drivers know what is happening. If those individuals could be held accountable for a crash, they might be more willing to intervene. The possibility that everyone in the car—and not just the driver—could be charged might also give drinkers additional motivation to make plans ahead of time for a safe ride home. And the law already allows people to be held responsible as accomplices or accessories for other crimes. If you drive the getaway car instead of pointing the gun at the bank teller, the law still considers you guilty of armed robbery. Why should drunk driving be any different, especially when someone is hurt or killed?
On the other hand, imposing such a requirement might be hard to enforce and prosecuting onlookers could lead to a slippery slope. For example, under such a law if you were in a bar at the same time as someone who later caused an alcohol-related crash, you might be held responsible. Another difficulty: if the passengers or onlookers are also intoxicated, they may not be capable of making a call to the police, let alone assessing the sobriety of another person.
Reporting drunk drivers is certainly the moral thing to do, but should it be legally required? What do you think?