Word of the Day: Misprision

There’s a word that’s been showing up in news cycles and current events a lot lately, and it’s a seldom-used, often misunderstood legal term that seems to be having its day in the sun: Misprision.

To be guilty of misprision, a person will hold knowledge of a federal crime and will fail to report that knowledge to civil authorities or share it in a court of law. The law applies in countries (such as England and the U.S.) and legal landscapes in which citizens have a duty to report crimes like acts of treason or felonies.

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Since it’s a technically a crime of NOT doing something, rather than a crime of deliberate and visible action, this term has been subject to scrutiny and a wide range of interpretations. In order to build a credible case, an accuser must first make the claim that the accused did, in fact, hold the knowledge of the crime in his or her head, and then make the claim that the person actively failed to disclose it. And of course, the contents of a person’s head can be difficult to expose and present as evidence.

For example, an attempt to prevent a witness from giving evidence might be placed under the definition of misprision. But first, the prosecution will have to prove that the person pressuring the witness had knowledge of the original crime.

That being the case, we can present a criminal act (like treason or murder) in two separate contexts: the act itself, or misprision of the act. The difference between treason and misprision of treason lies in the difference between commission (the doing) and omission (the failure to speak of the act when required to do so).

Is “Misprision” the same thing as a cover-up?

On the surface, it looks the catch-all slang term “cover-up” can be substituted for the formal legal term, but this is not exactly the case. A cover-up can include misrepresentation, but not all forms of misrepresentation are part of an active attempt to hide evidence of a crime.

Can misprision be overlaid with obstruction of justice, a clear felony?

As this informative Vox essay explains, obstruction of justice may be a felony offence, but the nature of the term can be hard to define and the crime itself can consequently be difficult to prove. Of course, this doesn’t mean that legal experts should just give up. There’s no need to throw up our hands and concede that the concept of justice is relative and semantic flexibility can be used to bend the system to the will of the interpreter. It simply means that unraveling the definition of a crime and then aligning that definition with a series of real-world actions can present a philosophical challenge, one from which we should not back down.