Should There Be A Legal Duty To Call 911? ‘Eric’s Law’ Makes A Case For Action

<p>Couretesy of Facebook</p>
<p>Eric Ashby.</p>
Photo: Eric Ashby Photo - Courtesy
Eric Ashby.

An online movement in favor of a bill in memorial of a drowned outdoorsman was dealt a setback when a legislative committee unanimously voted down a legal requirement to call 911.

Eric’s Law was named for Eric Ashby, who died on the Arkansas River on a treasure hunt for a $2 million trove hidden by New Mexico author Forrest Fenn. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office believes four companions joined Ashby on the search. Each are believed to have watched Ashby cling to a rock before the whitewater swept him away.

None of them alerted Ashby’s family or the police for 10 days.

“Because they walked away, nobody knew,” said Eric’s father, Paul Ashby. “Because they walked away, my son sat on the bottom of a river for 28 days. Because they walked away, I’ll never have closure.”

The identities Eric’s companions are known, but CPR will not publish their names since they have not been charged with a crime. None of them responded to requests for comment. One previously told a Colorado Springs TV station that the group didn’t know what to do when Eric Ashby disappeared, so they did nothing.

That’s not good enough for Paul Ashby. He has pressed for the passage of Eric’s Law in Colorado and Tennessee, where he lives and his son grew up.

“What these people committed, is in my eyes, a crime, a crime they should have to pay for in some value,” he said. “If they had just called and said I’m sorry, that would have been value.”

Ten states have some kind of duty-to-report law. Minnesota makes it a petty misdemeanor if someone fails to offer assistance when they know another person faces physical harm. Other states allow people to be held liable in civil court if they fail to seek assistance.

Under the Colorado bill, a failure to call 911 would have resulted in 18 months in jail or a $5,000 fine. If a person died because of inaction, he or she would have faced a steeper felony. One exception would be if seeking help put a person at risk.

The measure was not a natural fit for State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Conservative Republican who leans against legislating behavior. He came around to sponsoring the legislation after talking to impassioned advocates, like Misty Morris of Salida. She presented the bill as a response to a series of incidents where bystanders failed to help rescue someone in peril.

“I look at what’s happening and there comes a time when the government should step in...and protect these people,” Wilson told members of the House Judiciary committee before the vote.

Many lawmakers saw the bill as an overreach. Some wondered if it would require people to report domestic abuse against a victim’s wishes. Others, like Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, imagined what the law would mean in the case of a car accident.

“During rush hour, there could literally be hundreds to thousands of people watching something happening,” he said. “And if all of them didn't call that, then this criminalizes those individuals.”

Carrie Lynn Thompson, a representative for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, added that judges tend to oppose laws that compel good behavior rather than punish bad behavior.

“Maybe I'm idealistic, but I’d like to think that, more often than not, people don’t need a law to do the right thing,” she said.

In the end, the House Judiciary Committee voted 0-11 against Eric’s Law.

Paul Ashby said the vote “could be disastrous” for his parallel effort in Tennessee. At the very least, he hopes Eric’s death starts a conversation about what’s legal and what’s right.

“This is much more than whether or not we got the opportunity to make a law,” he said. “What’s important is that we all see we have to take responsibility for each other.”