There are roughly a dillion movies in existence that feature a missing person as a plot point, and in nearly every single one of those films there's a scene in which someone tries to report a person missing only to be shot down by those callous, asshole police. The person needs to be missing 24 hours before they can do anything. Maybe your loved one just went to a movie? Maybe you had a fight and they went to a motel, right? Yeah, let's wait 24 hours first.
An easy way to test the plausibility of this as an actual legal rule is to imagine the missing person is your 8-year-old. He was supposed to be home from school at 4, and now it's 5 and there's no sign of him. No one at school has seen him since he left, and he didn't go to a friend's house. Imagine how big an asshole the cop is who tells you they can't look for your 8-year-old until he's been missing 24 hours. Maybe he's just on a Pokemon bender, right?
Who isn't these days?
It is not the law anywhere in the civilized world that you need to wait 24 hours to report a person missing or that the cops will not investigate until 24 hours has passed if you have even a shred of reason to believe their disappearance isn't normal. To make this worse is the amount of anecdotal evidence I found online of people who have literally been told by cops in real life that it needs to be 24 hours. And, in fact, I was once told by a cop I needed to wait 24 hours when I called about someone in my family who went missing, which makes this load of shit even worse. It's not true and it's not right.
There's a show called The First 48 that's based on the idea that the first 48 hours are the most crucial in finding out what happened if someone has gone missing. How the fuck does that work if the first half doesn't count? It's just not true. Don't go calling the police if dad is supposed to be home at 5 and it's 5:05 with no phone call, but if you find his car on the side of the road with a smashed windshield, you may have probable cause to go looking for him now rather than tomorrow. Here, have a look at some fun quotes from police websites around the country:
From the Chicago PD: How long must I wait to make a missing persons report?
There is no mandatory waiting period. Common sense should be your guide. Please keep in mind that even people who are regular in their habits can get stuck in traffic, caught in a long line at the supermarket, or they can run into an old friend on the way home from work.
Los Angeles PD: You may initiate a missing persons report by contacting your local law enforcement agency. Contrary to popular belief, law enforcement agencies in California do not require a person to wait a specific period of time before reporting a missing person.
Hartford, Connecticut: The Policy of the Hartford Police Department is that there is no set time to wait before you report someone missing. Each missing person incident must be approached with a common sense look at the circumstances involved.
For example, this looks bad.
Hoover, Alabama: Despite what you may have seen on television, it is not necessary to wait 24 hours to report someone as "missing." Special situations and circumstances, such as a potentially serious medical condition, may heighten concerns about a friend or family member who cannot be contacted or located. Such circumstances should be conveyed to the Police Department when reporting a missing person.
Michigan Law: If the missing person is vulnerable (i.e., under 18 years of age, over 65 years of age, suffering from physical or mental illness, depressed/suicidal, or the disappearance is completely out of character) report the disappearance to police immediately if your suspicions are aroused. It's never too soon in these instances, and time may be of the essence. This could also include someone on life-saving medication who has not taken their medicine with them. You can contact police and the local media to ask for help in publicizing their story. REMEMBER ... it's never too soon.
My God, even Michigan, the state that shrugs built. Everyone wants you to find missing people. Yes, they'll prioritize kids first. and yes, daddy may not have actually been honest when he said, "See you later," before heading out for smokes, but by and large any missing person is a fairly big deal and the cops will try to help you out if there's a reason.
Check out other myths that movies have spread in 15 Science Myths You Probably Believe (Thanks To Movies) and 6 Myths About Famous Places You Believe (Thanks To Movies).
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