A 19-year-old woman attacked by a mob of some 50 men on a dark Miami road earlier this week was rescued by John Ayer, a passing motorist who braved the menacing crowd to help her. Police credit him with saving the woman's life.
Mr. Ayer, a home repair serviceman, was following a moral law when he chose to get involved, even though the price of helping the young woman was a beating. But had the attack on the woman occurred in Minnesota, those who ignored the situation - not stepping in or calling the police - would have broken the state criminal code. Would such a law have made any of the onlookers act differently?
''Good Samaritan'' laws - mandating a citizen's duty to assist another in emergencies - have been sparked by an incident of gang-rape in New Bedford, Mass., in which onlookers failed to report the crime and, indeed, reportedly encouraged it.
Minnesota passed its duty-to-assist law as a result of the New Bedford incident, says state Rep. Paul Anders Ogren, principal author of the bill. It was proposed from the floor of the Legislature and, in order to obtain passage before the legislative session had ended, the bill was approved handily without the usual hearings.
The law requires that a person at the scene of an emergency who knows another person has been harmed or is in danger of being harmed give ''reasonable'' assistance, which can include calling police or medical help. Failure to do so constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine. Representative Ogren will seek to increase the penalty in the next legislative session. Law 'gets people to think'
''Prosecutors have told me it's likely that prosecution on this is going to be pretty rare,'' Ogren concedes. (There has not been a single prosecution under Vermont's good Samaritan law since it was put on the books in 1967, according to the state attorney general's office.) But, adds Ogren, ''the law is not merely to coerce, but to reinforce and teach. It has gotten a lot of discussion going . . . gotten a lot of people to think.''
Rather than aiming to compel good Samaritanism, laws drafted in the past on this issue have focused on protecting from civil liability those who did choose to get involved and help in emergency situations.
Objections to the Minnesota law centered on whether it was appropriate to compel by law what has always been a moral responsibility. It was also questioned whether civil liability would necessarily follow criminal liability.
But the law can throw some weight on the altruistic side of the balance, which otherwise might be outweighed by other considerations, social and circumstantial, says Quentin Ogren, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles and father of Representative Ogren.
''A lot of people find themselves in an ambiguous situation in an emergency and suddenly they're ambivalent. (Under the law) it's no longer 'should I or shouldn't I,' but it's 'I must,' '' he explains. Many European nations have good Samaritan laws
He also adds that most European nations have good Samaritan laws with stiff penalties - such as a three-month minimum jail sentence - for ''not getting involved.''
Public debate in Rhode Island over the nearby New Bedford case prompted a limited version of the good Samaritan law, requiring the witnesses of a rape to notify law enforcement authorities within 24 hours. Violation of the law is punishable by a $500 fine and/or a year in jail.
''I asked our attorney general, 'If this had happened in Rhode Island, what could you do?' '' explains the Rhode Island bill's sponsor, former state Sen. Gloria Kennedy-Fleck. ''He said, 'Probably nothing.' So this makes it a legal responsibility, not a just a moral law.''
Vermont's good Samaritan law was prompted when the medical profession lobbied for a civil law exempting medical professionals from liability when responding to emergencies, says Assistant Attorney General Wallace Malley.
''(The legislators) went a step further and said it was a citizen's duty to respond,'' he says. The law requires a $100 fine for failure to come to the aid of an emergency victim.
Representative Ogren says he's fielded questions on his law from lawmakers from California, Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts, where a crime witness bill has been drafted that would make it a criminal offense punishable by a $100 to $ 1,000 fine for a citizen not to help a victim of a crime that is punishable by life in prison or death. That largely includes murder, or murder in connection with other crimes.