During my Criminal Law class on Monday afternoon, my professor talked about the concept of criminal liability when a person fails to act. If I view a crime or have knowledge of one occurring, am I under a legal obligation to do anything about it? While the law generally says no, our societal concepts of morality say to act.
That is, unless you are Mireya Navarro or one of the many passengers riding the 2 train with her on Sunday night. In a City Room post published yesterday as I was sitting in that very same criminal law class, Navarro told her sordid subway tale of a group of passengers who witnessed something so gross and banded together not to tell anyone. Call it Real World: IRT.
On the way to Brooklyn from Manhattan around 7:30 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, a disheveled man walked into a No. 2 subway train making a stop at Canal Street. No one paid much attention as the man lay down on a row of seats to take a nap. The complete strangers around him did not realize he would soon force them to come together to make a practical decision.
The man, his eyes still closed, sat up a couple of stops later, opened his fly and urinated. From a seated position, he thoroughly soaked his vicinity, and the half-full car emptied out in the middle as his fellow passengers — including this reporter — fled in both directions.
In a next-door car where some of the escaping riders had reassembled, some shook their heads, visibly jarred, and one commented that this was a first. Then a debate ensued about the right course of action to take. I said I would be getting off the train soon and would report the man’s actions to the proper authorities. They should remove him, I argued, before other unsuspecting riders walked into the car and had to deal with him and the mess.
The consensus seemed to be that this was a bad idea. “All they’ll do is take the train out of service, and we’ll all be stuck,” a woman said.
In the end, Navarro opted against telling anyone. The urine-infected 2 train continued south through Brooklyn until it reached its Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College terminus. What happened at that point is anyone’s guess.
At first blush, Navarro’s actions seem pretty inexcusable. Egged on by a crowd too self-centered to be inconvenienced for a few minutes while the police attended to an unsanitary and illegal situation, Navarro opted not to report the conditions in this subway car. Instead, she let the man and wrote about it for The Times the next day under the guise of a “Only in New York” story.
On the other hand, though, the cost/benefit analysis of telling someone may prove Navarro correct. At least, that’s what City Room commenter J said in his response to this sordid affair. By telling someone, the train would be delayed; the line would get backed up; and everyone would have to wait a few more minutes before they get home.
So what is it then? Do you tell or not? I’ve been in a similar situation but not to this extreme. I’ve witnessed cars empty out when people realize the stench, but I’ve never seen someone urinate in a train car in the middle of the evening. I have never said anything though because by the time I leave the subway, it’s not my problem anymore. I’m where I need to be, and the incident remains a stinky memory.
To this, I do not know the answer. Navarro and the herd in her 2 train opted not to tell for mostly selfish reasons, and that’s the New York subway attitude.
Photo Credit: An ever-present MTA sign urges riders to say something if they see — or smell — something. (By flickr user ZeroOne.)