Criminal Law

Does Offering Rewards To Solve Crimes Pay Off?

There are thousands of unsolved murders in the US each year. Logically, then, there must be thousands more other crimes that go unsolved each year. Many times the victims' families or law enforcement offer cash rewards for help from the public. Do rewards really work?

The Debate

The stories and statistics tell the tale:

  • In Chicago, a $130,000 reward hasn't led to the arrest of anyone involved in the shooting death of a police officer in July 2010
  • A reward that has grown from $6,000 to over $20,000 hasn't helped solve the 2008 murder of Matt Novak in Philadelphia, even though social media web sites take the reward offer nationwide
  • No one yet anywhere in the world has claimed the $27 million reward for Bin Laden

Where does the reward money come from? Sometimes a victim's family puts up their own money. Some crime stoppers programs, like Ohio's program, take tax deductible donations from private citizens and businesses. Also, Ohio police departments are required by law to donate a percentage of the revenues they make from auctioning unclaimed stolen property to the program.

As a general rule, if a crime is solved and the reward goes unclaimed, the money is used for rewards in other unsolved crimes.

Why Don't Rewards Work?

Sometimes the police get tips, but they don't pan out. Sometimes there may not be a witness to the actual crime, or it may take time before someone realizes someone he knows may have been involved in a crime.

More often than not, though, it's fear. The promise of cash isn't enough to overcome a would-be tipster's fear that helping the police may jeopardize his or his family's lives and safety. The criminal he helps capture may have family and friends who won't react kindly to the criminal's capture.

But it's anonymous, right? Generally, yes. But to claim a reward, you usually have to give your name to the police. The police do a good job of protecting your identity, though. The problem usually is the word-of-mouth system. A friend or family member knows, for instance, and then she tells a friend, and he tells a store clerk, and so on.

The Flip Side

Nonetheless, many are still fans of the cash reward system and point to the positive results over the years. For instance, the Austin, Texas crime stoppers program boasts that it has paid out close to $1 million in rewards since 1979. And the federal Rewards for Justice program (funded by federal tax dollars and private donations ) has paid over $80 million to tipsters who've help capture terrorist suspects.

And remember the Unibomber? His brother and sister-in-law collected the $1 million reward for his capture and conviction. It shows how the will to do what's right can overcome even family ties.

It's hard to say that either side is wrong.

Be Careful

Would be reward-seekers need to be careful. Don't take matters into your own hands and try to catch a suspect on your own. Not only could you get hurt, but you could get arrested or the suspect could sue you if he gets hurt in the process.

Contact the authorities. You can call the police and make a report. Practically every federal, state, and local agency has some sort of anonymous hotline you can call. In some areas you can text message a tip to the police. Check with your local crime stoppers or similar program for more information about reporting tips.

There can be little question that we're all safer when we all take a part in making our communities safer. Reward or not, everyone should do what's right and report suspected criminal activity. A tip may stop the next crime, and that next crime may be against you or a family member.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Are police departments legally required to make sure the names and other personal information on tipsters are stored safely?
  • What should I do if the police don't act on a tip I gave them about a crime? Are they required to investigate every tip?
  • Can I get into trouble if someone is arrested on tip I gave to police but I was wrong about the suspect?
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