Landslide Article

I recently co-authored an article with Professor Brad Desnoyer and Janet Fries discussing superhero-related intellectual property topics, both real and fictional.  Last month the article was published in Landslide, the magazine of the ABA section of IP law, as the cover story!  You can read the article for free online. Thanks to Brad and Janet for their excellent work on the article and to David Postolski for putting everything together.

She-Hulk #3

She-Hulk #3 picks right up where issue #2 left off, introducing Jennifer Walters’s second client: Kristoff Vernard, son of Victor von Doom.  Kristoff is seeking political asylum in the United States, and while Walters was his fifteenth choice to represent him, she agrees to take him on as a client.  This issue mentions a lot of details relating to the law of asylum, so I’m going to take a stab at explaining those.  And once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without an ethically questionable decision or two!

I. Political Asylum

Walters explains that obtaining asylum requires proving that the asylum seeker has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of origin and that living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.  This is basically accurate.

The well-founded fear of persecution standard is derived from the standard for refugees, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42):

The term “refugee” means (A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

The “unable or unwilling to return” part is presumably what Walters meant by “living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.”

Of course, that’s merely the standard for refugee status.  Claiming asylum is a little more detailed, requiring four elements described by the Board of Immigration Appeals:

(1) the alien possesses a belief or characteristic a persecutor seeks to overcome in others by means of punishment of some sort; (2) the persecutor is already aware, or could easily become aware, that the alien possesses this belief or characteristic; (3) the persecutor has the capability of punishing the alien; and (4) the persecutor has the inclination to punish the alien.

Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I. & N. Dec. 439, 446 (1987).  Vernard would seem to meet these four factors, and presumably his unwillingness to serve the Latverian government would count as a political opinion.

The next major thing Walters asks about is how long Vernard has been in the US.  It turns out he has been in the US for exactly one year, which sends Walters racing to get to the courthouse.  Again this is correct.  There is a hard one year limit on asylum claims. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a)(2)(B).

Walters exaggerates a little when she says there isn’t a judge in the world that will stay past five.  There are often judges or at least magistrates on call for late-night search warrants and other time-sensitive court business, but this doesn’t fall under any of those circumstances.

When Walters and Vernard finally make it to the court, the judge asks whether there is an I-589 on file or an EOIR-28.  The first is an application for asylum.  The second is a notice of entry of appearance as an attorney, which would need to be filed before Walters could represent Vernard before the New York City Immigration Court, which is indeed located at 26 Federal Plaza as described in the first page of the comic.

Curiously (to me), Walters argues that Vernard is eligible for asylum because he is being persecuted because of membership in a particular social class, namely the Latverian royal family.  It is true that a family can qualify as a particular social class.  Gebremichael v. I.N.S., 10 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 1993).  But Vernard isn’t being persecuted simply because he’s a member of the Latverian royal family; indeed his membership in the royal family affords him numerous privileges and protections.  Rather, it is his refusal to follow the government’s policy of succession that is the source of the fear of persecution.  If, for example, Vernard were a member of the royal family but not heir to the throne he wouldn’t have a well-founded fear of persecution.  But I won’t quibble about that too much: Vernard still had a good claim based on political opinions, and membership in the royal family is a little easier to explain.

II. The Duty of Confidentiality and the Attorney-Client Privilege

Once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without a casual ethical lapse.  Rather than conduct Vernard’s intake interview at her office, Walters takes him to a coffee shop, where they discuss the case in the crowded shop and outside with several people nearby.  Nothing they discuss is an important secret (it’s not as if they’re discussing where he hid the body or something), but it is nonetheless a potential violation of the duty of confidentiality.

Attorneys owe a duty of confidentiality to their clients.  In New York this duty is described by Rule 1.6:

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly reveal confidential information, as defined in this Rule …

“Confidential information” consists of information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege

But information cannot be protected by the privilege if the lawyer discusses confidential information with the client in a non-confidential setting.  This can include communicating in the presence of third parties.  See, e.g., People v. Harris, 57 N.Y.2d 335 (1982) (speaking to a lawyer in the presence of a police officer and another person); Bower v. Weisman, 669 F.Supp. 602 (S.D.N.Y. 1987) (talking in an elevator).  If the communication is never really confidential then the privilege doesn’t exist.

Now, there’s no ethical problem if the client voluntarily disregards confidentiality, but in this case Walters was the one to (firmly) request conducting the interview in public.  Vernard may have reasonably believed that the conversation would be protected, since his (prospective) attorney was the one to suggest the idea.

Again, we don’t see Walters or Vernard discuss anything terribly secret or damaging in public, but it’s a bad practice to discuss a case with a client in public.

As a Matter of Law, the Opera is Haunted

Today’s post was inspired by this question from Sara, who writes:

In the Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is made clear that the new owners of the Opera Company and building were unaware of a chandelier-dropping, money-demanding, havoc-wreaking, stage hand-killing “opera ghost” they were to encounter squatting in their basement when they purchased the building and the company.

Would this end up being a case of “buyer beware”, where they now have to deal with this murderous costumed freak on their own, or would there be a chance of them getting their money back, since no contract they signed would have mentioned a ghost?

I would have liked to save this question for Halloween, but it’s too good a question to wait six months.  I know next to nothing about French law, so I’m going to approach it from a US perspective.  Good thing, too, because it turn out that there’s a famous New York case almost exactly on point: Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (1991).  The full text of the case is worth reading if only because it is full of terrible ghost puns.

In Stambovsky a resident of New York City bought a house in the village of Nyack, a small suburb of New York.  Unfortunately for the buyer the house had a long and storied history in the community of being haunted, which the out-of-town buyer did not discover until after the purchase.  Whether the buyer was superstitious or merely concerned with the diminished resale value of a haunted house, he sought to rescind the contract on the theory that the seller should have disclosed the house’s haunted status.

Ordinarily a court might balk at having to determine whether a house is haunted, but in this case the seller had previously made a point of claiming in both the national and local press that the house was indeed haunted.  As a result the court held that the seller was legally prevented (“estopped”) from claiming otherwise and thus “as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”

Having thus established that the house was haunted, the court held that the case called for an exception to the general rule of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”):

Where, as here, the seller not only takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s ignorance but has created and perpetuated a condition about which he is unlikely to even inquire, enforcement of the contract (in whole or in part) is offensive to the court’s sense of equity. Application of the remedy of rescission, within the bounds of the narrow exception to the doctrine of caveat emptor set forth herein, is entirely appropriate to relieve the unwitting purchaser from the consequences of a most unnatural bargain.

In light of all this, what do we make of the case of the Opera Populaire?  The buyers were evidently ignorant of the haunting, whereas the sellers were aware, and we may assume that even in the 1880s one would be unlikely to inquire as to the haunted status of a property.  So far, so good.

(NB: Since at least some members of the opera company know that the Phantom is a flesh-and-blood squatter rather than a ghost, it may be that the question is whether a seller has a duty to disclose knowledge of a dangerous squatter on the premises.  Inasmuch as this is a rare thing (especially for an otherwise legitimately occupied and used building) that would be very difficult for a prospective buyer to ascertain on their own (not even the seller knew where the Phantom’s lair was) it seems that a seller would have the same duty to disclose a real Phantom as a spectral one.)

However, a key difference from Stambovsky is that the sellers did not create the condition.  It’s not as though the former owners invited the Phantom to take up residence or popularized the story of the building being haunted (as far as I know).  It could be argued that they perpetuated it by not taking adequate steps to rid the building of the Phantom, but on balance I’m not sure that’s enough.  In Stambovsky the seller “deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed,” whereas at least originally the story of the Phantom was mostly a matter of whispered rumors.  The Stambovsky court repeatedly emphasized the seller’s prior actions, which are mostly lacking in this case.

Thus, the outcome in this case would probably turn on the extent to which the seller had traded on the opera house’s haunted state, but there would at least be an argument for the buyers undoing the sale.  The exception to caveat emptor created in Stambovsky might not reach quite that far, however.

Ultimate Spider-Man #117

The question behind today’s post comes from Levi.  Trigger warning: this post deals extensively and frankly with the subject of suicide.

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Captain America and Taxes

Today’s post is a quick one in response to this question from ldycemn:

Since cap was frozen…should he have to pay a fine for not filling?

This seems like an appropriate question for this time of year, and luckily it has a pretty simple answer: no.  Not everyone has to file a tax return, particularly those with incomes below a certain threshold.  The filing requirements change with some frequency, but as far as I can tell there has always been a threshold.  Since Steve Rogers wasn’t earning any money after he was frozen (since he was presumed dead), he wouldn’t have to file.  If he received backpay after being thawed out then he would have to pay taxes on that backpay, but that would be based on the tax laws when he was thawed, not the years during which he was frozen.

She-Hulk #2

Today’s post is a short one based on the second issue of Charles Soule’s run of She-Hulk.  Soule continues to do great work, though this issue doesn’t have quite as many legal issues to discuss.  A big one is revealed at the end of the issue, but I don’t want to spoil it.  Instead I’m going to talk about attorneys and non-compete agreements.

When Jennifer Walters left her job with the firm of Paine & Luckberg, she was told that all of her outstanding cases would be assigned to other associates, except for “the blue file.”  As a partner explains, “we took that case as a courtesy to you.  If you go, it goes too.”  We learn a little more about the mysterious blue file in issue #2, but not enough to discuss yet.  What we do see in issue #2 is Walters trying (and failing) to drum up business from clients for whom she did work while she was at Paine & Luckberg.  But wait: is it legal for an attorney to attempt to poach clients from her former employer?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Non-competition and non-solicitation agreements are a common feature of many employment contracts, especially in industries that are dependent on sales relationships with specific customers or which involve employees learning a lot of not-quite-trade-secrets-but-still-important information.  The specifics vary from industry to industry, employer to employer, employee to employee, and (most importantly) state to state, but basically they seek to prohibit the employee from competing with the employer for a certain amount of time after the employment relationship is terminated.  This can include working for a competitor, working in the same industry, or trying to solicit the employer’s clients.  A few states basically ban the practice outright, and those that allow it do so with significant restrictions.  This usually takes the form of limitations on the geographic, temporal, and industry scope of such agreements.

For example, an employee might be forbidden from working in the same (relatively narrowly defined) industry, for a year or two, within the same city.  This means the employee could find similar work in another part of the country, or work in a related but distinct field, or just wait it out.

New York, where She-Hulk works, is a state that allows such restrictive covenants, but only to the extent that they are reasonable and necessary to protect valid business interests.  The general rule is that they are allowed if they are “reasonable in time and area, necessary to protect the employer’s legitimate interests, not harmful to the general public and not unreasonably burdensome to the employee.”  BDO Seidman v. Hirshberg, 93 N.Y.2d 382, 388-89 (1999).  But there is a special rule for attorneys.

In every state that I am aware of (including New York) there is an ethical rule similar to ABA Model Rule 5.6, which states:

A lawyer shall not participate in offering or making:

(a) a partnership, shareholders, operating, employment, or other similar type of agreement that restricts the right of a lawyer to practice after termination of the relationship, except an agreement concerning benefits upon retirement;

The justification for the rule is found in the comments, which state that

An agreement restricting the right of lawyers to practice after leaving a firm not only limits their professional autonomy but also limits the freedom of clients to choose a lawyer.

One might observe that this is equally true of every other profession and its clients, but there is not necessarily any hypocrisy here.  Remember that this is an ethical rule created by the legal profession, not an exception to the law.  Without this rule it is entirely possible that law firms could impose non-compete agreements on their employees and partners, although one could imagine a court carving out an exception for criminal defendants on the basis of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The bottom line is that, although the firm intended to keep its clients, Walters was almost certainly free to try to poach them.

She-Hulk #1

Marvel has started a new run of She-Hulk, written by practicing attorney Charles Soule.  In contrast to the somewhat further ranging series written by Dan Slott, this volume promises to focus somewhat more closely on Jennifer Walters’s day job.  So has Soule’s considerable legal experience allowed him to blend interesting stories and accurate legal detail?  Let’s take a look.

(Spoilers ahead: if you haven’t checked out the first issue (which is pretty good), go buy it.)

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The Flash and Property Rights

More mailbag questions today, this one inspired by this scene in The Flash Vol. 3, #2.  Charles asks:

Now, what the Flash does here is pretty freaking cool, but as you can see in my tags… what happens afterwards? Who owns that building? Do the tenants have to pay rent? Is there going to have to be a contract worked out between the landowners and the Flash? Even if it passes code, will it still be approved for someone to live in because the Flash, from all appearances, isn’t a certified home builder?

There are a lot of questions here, but let’s start at the beginning.

I. Who Owns the Building?  And What About Rent?

Regardless of the prior ownership situation, it’s clear that The Flash is offering the building as a gift.  Acceptance of that gift won’t require a contract (indeed gratuitous transfers are a classic example of a situation in which a contract does not exist).  Whether the owner will accept that gift is the real question.

If the owner of the prior building is the same as the owner of the land it sat on, then they’re unlikely to turn down a nice new building (assuming we can handwave any building code issues).  But if the landowner is not the same as the building owner, then the landowner might have welcomed the opportunity to terminate their agreement with the building owner, perhaps to consolidate lots, rezone the property, redevelop, or simply to sell or lease to someone else.  They might not be so keen on the new building.

It is also possible that the building and land were owned by the tenants themselves, which would probably simplify matters.

In any event, the tenants would almost certainly have to continue to pay rent.  They might not have to renegotiate their leases.  Apartment lease agreements commonly refer to a unit at an address, not to a specific building.  They also typically have clauses dealing with the destruction of the building, but from what I’ve seen of lease agreements it’s entirely possible that the tenants would have a right to continue to lease a unit in the new building (assuming the building owner accepted the gift, etc).

II. Building Code and Permit Issues

Now we start getting into the real problems.  In addition to The Flash (presumably) not being a licensed contractor, he certainly didn’t pull the required permits for rebuilding.  There may not be much legal leeway for the building to be approved without those licenses and permits.  And there are good reasons for this: we’re given to understand that The Flash did a good job of rebuilding, but what if he missed something?  It might not be so easy for the injured party to haul him into court.

And moreover, although the tenants ask “where are we going to live now?”, unless there’s a housing shortage the answer is “another apartment, since you can terminate the lease for the now non-existent one.”  To the extent that their property was destroyed, well, that’s what renter’s insurance is for.  Now, they may not have had insurance, and finding and moving into a new place is costly.  But it seems to me that The Flash could have more easily (and legally) used his powers to quickly make a bunch of money and then just given that to the tenants.  That might be more realistic, but it wouldn’t be very fun.

III. Conclusion

More questions remain: where did he get the building materials?  How did he pay for them?  If he could buy a building’s worth of materials, why not just give the tenants the money?  But the bottom line seems to be that even if he could convince the landowner to accept the gift of the building and the city to approve its construction, it probably wasn’t the best way to handle the situation.  It did make for an awesome comic book scene, though.

Elementary: “Child Predator”

I’m back after a brief hiatus! A whole bunch of reader questions have accumulated in the mailbag, and I’m going to try to work through the backlog. Today’s comes from Bob, a British reader who asked about the American show Elementary, specifically the first season episode “Child Predator” (spoiler alert!).  If you haven’t seen Elementary, I recommend it.  I actually prefer it to Sherlock.

Anyway, on to Bob’s questions (again, spoilers):

[In the episode,] a multiple child-killer initially tricked the police into believing he was an unwilling accomplice of the “real” killer. Believing this to be the truth the DA offered immunity from prosecution in return for his help in catching the “real” killer. Holmes subsequently discovered that the roles were really the other way round – he was the real killer and the man he claimed to be the accomplice of was, in fact, the unwilling accomplice. The deal is specifically immunity from any crimes committed in concert with the other man.
The deal is implied to still hold and he openly admits his crimes to Holmes, apparently certain that he is safe from prosecution.
One of the crimes is later discovered to be a solo endeavor as the other man was in hospital when it was committed.  [At the] end of the episode the police are about to arrest him for that one crime.

I’m British and pretty much everything I know about American law comes from your blog or the sources that inspired it, so I have three questions.

1. Would the DA really offer such an all-encompassing deal.
2. When it’s discovered that he really is the prime instigator would the deal still hold.
3. Would the “solo” murder be covered by the deal  or not.

I. Immunity in Exchange for Cooperation

As I told Bob when he sent in the question (way back at the end of 2012, embarrassingly enough), I don’t have enough criminal law experience to say whether the deal was realistic.  My gut says yes.  In theory the “accomplice” had a good defense (duress, since he was originally kidnapped by the actual accomplice), he was a minor for most of the crimes, and the police and prosecution needed his help to put away the person they thought was the actual mastermind.  Granting immunity in order to allow one member of a conspiracy to roll over on another is a common tactic, and I could see it being used here.

II. Just How Strong are Immunity Deals Anyway?

It has been recognized for some time that plea bargains can be enforced against the government. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971).  But what about deals in which the defendant is offering something else, such as agreeing to testify as a witness against other participants in the crime?  It turns out that such agreements are not always enforceable.

The Second Circuit (which includes New York) has held that “the government may in its discretion make agreements in which it exchanges various levels of immunity from prosecution for the defendant’s cooperation” and that such agreements are subject to ordinary contract law principles.  U.S. v. Aleman, 286 F.3d 86, 89 (2d Cir. 2002).  These principles include construing any such deal strictly against the government (because, after all, the government wrote the deal). Id. at 90.

However, all the strict-construing in the world won’t save a defendant who fails to uphold their end of the bargain.  A common feature of immunity deals is that the defendant-witness has to agree to testify truthfully.  As the Aleman case held, “truthful” can include a sincere but incorrect belief, but it doesn’t include lying. Id.  On the other hand, while the government has the discretion to decide if a defendant has adequately cooperated, “the government’s discretion does not grant it power to turn its back on its promises to the defendant under the cooperation agreement or to ignore a defendant’s cooperation efforts simply because the defendant is supplying information that the government does not want to hear.”  Id. at 91.

Aleman was a federal case, however, and the case in Elementary was a state case.  So what do the New York courts say about this?  It turns out that there’s a fairly similar New York case, People v. Curdgel, in which the defendant was given a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against his accomplices.  83 N.Y.2d 862 (1994).  After he testified, however, the defendant went on television and said that he had lied to the grand jury.  The prosecution refused to honor the plea agreement, and the highest court in New York upheld that refusal.  The court held that the “defendant failed to uphold his end of the plea agreement and rendered the agreement valueless to the People…We cannot say that essential fairness compels enforcement of the original agreement.”  Id. at 864.

So the answer will almost certainly depend on how exactly the immunity deal was written.  If it included a requirement that the defendant testify truthfully, or if the deal itself included a statement of facts that the defendant swore to, then the prosecution would not be bound by the deal because the defendant breached it by lying.  But if the deal was sloppily written and simply gave the defendant immunity in exchange for agreeing to testify (regardless of the content of his testimony), then the government may not have much of a leg to stand on.

III. The Scope of Immunity

Whether or not the “solo” murder would be covered by the deal depends again on how exactly it was written.  The language we get from the episode is “in concert with.”  We know that the real accomplice was in the hospital recovering from a major surgery at the time of the solo crime, so he certainly wasn’t actively involved in the commission of the crime.  However, the defendant likely used the accomplice’s vehicle and other, indirect, forms of assistance.  It could be argued that the deal should be strictly construed against the government to include not just conspiracy but also accessory or accomplice conduct.

That all assumes that the deal holds at all, however.  As discussed above, it’s very likely that the deal would fall apart completely once it came out that the defendant was lying about his role in the murders.

 

The Hobbit and Refugee Law

This guest post was conceived of by Piyali Syam and authored by Eric Jokinen. Piyali is Managing Editor of LLM Info, where she occasionally writes about Middle Earth legal problems as well. Eric got his J.D. at the University of Southern California, and was an associate at Proskauer Rose in New York before branching out and becoming a full time freelance writer. Thereafter, he somehow got involved in attempting to analyze the legal problems of fictional characters.

 

The Hobbit and Refugee Law

With the recent release of the movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we thought it would be interesting to offer a bit of legal analysis to go along with the film. The central story is one that involves the displacement of a group of dwarves from their homeland by a conquering dragon, and it made us wonder—what would happen to the dwarves under modern international refugee law? What about the dragon? And what of the dwarves’ treasure hoard? Below, I will attempt to answer some of these unique questions.

It’s tempting to say that this entire post is a flight of fancy, given that we’re talking about fantastical beings. But since it seems that just like real-world dictators, dragons don’t bother themselves with the dictates of international law, the parallels may be closer than you might think.

Background facts – the dwarves’ expulsion from the Lonely Mountain

According to Middle Earth lore, the dwarves were the first to inhabit the Lonely Mountain.  Originally, it was used as a mining colony. Over many years, however, it developed into a central stronghold of a major dwarvish kingdom.

The dwarves of the Lonely Mountain were a prosperous people, and their mining activity yielded an extraordinary amount of precious metals and gems. Unfortunately, this attracted the attention of Smaug, a fire-breathing dragon. One day, he attacked the Lonely Mountain, and killed and drove out the dwarves. The surviving dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, fled and went to live in exile in the Blue Mountains.

Back to reality – basic international refugee law

Refugee law on Regular Earth is governed mainly by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967, to which most nations are parties. The primary international organization tasked with facilitating the proper treatment of refugees is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

So, who is a refugee under international law? A person who:

  • Is outside his or her country of nationality or if he or she doesn’t have one, outside his or her country of former habitual residence;
  • Has a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; and
  • Is unable or unwilling to return to their former country and attempt to avail him or herself of the protection thereof.

If a person meets this definition, he or she is entitled to a number of protections. Even if a person does not meet the definition, however, principles of customary international law generally still provide that person with some protection. For example, the principle of non-refoulement provides that a person should not be expelled or returned to the “Frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” There is also the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which prohibits the forcible removal of persons to a country where there is a real risk of torture.

So, where do the dwarves stand?

The dwarves are in an interesting situation.

Assuming that the Lonely Mountain was a sovereign nation under the control of the dragon Smaug, the danger is clearly too great for them to return there. The probability is quite high that, if they attempt to return home, they will be killed. And it can be argued that this danger is due to their race, nationality, or even political view. Thus, it seems that they might be entitled to protection as refugees under the laws of Regular Earth.

But the dwarves aren’t seeking asylum, and this changes things.

If the dwarves wanted to stay in the Blue Mountains, or the Shire, it would be a different question. But everyone knows that a soft life in a hobbit hole with a dozen meals a day doesn’t suit the pleasures of the dwarves.  They prefer to occupy themselves with mining and smithing. Instead of settling somewhere new, the courageous lot decided to retake their mountain—thanks in part to the persistence of Gandalf the Grey, who is a notorious troublemaker or one of the saviors of the world, depending on whom you ask.

They’re not asking anyone to allow them to settle within their borders. Instead, they mainly need material support and safe passage through various nations. Sadly, however, many of their actions on this quest, as detailed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, would probably lead to their lawful arrest.

Detention of the dwarves

Take, for example, the dwarves’ detention by the elves of Mirkwood. While it’s true that detaining a refugee is generally presumed to be inappropriate, this rule is fairly broad. It even covers refugees that enter a country illegally, provided that they’ve come directly from their homeland and present themselves to authorities without delay. There are certain exceptions, however. An authority may detain refugees if time is needed to make an asylum determination or to verify identity, to name a few purposes.

Unfortunately for the dwarves, by the time they reach Mirkwood, they’ve traveled through a number of nations (without so much as a single passport stamp). Accordingly, the elves of Mirkwood were probably within their rights to apprehend the dwarves after finding them in conflict with giant spiders. This provides them with an opportunity to control the situation while attempting to properly verify the dwarves’ identities and immigration statuses.

Voluntary repatriation

Okay, so the dwarves aren’t asking anyone for asylum. Amazingly, they actually want to return home. So what happens to those refugees who want to go back? Well, there is historical precedent for voluntary repatriation, but it generally requires the participation of the government of the country the refugees want to return to. And, like difficult regimes back here on Regular Earth, there are no indications that Smaug wants to pursue a repatriation initiative—which means that the dwarves’ only option to return home is war.

Could Smaug ever become the rightful “owner” of the territory of the Lonely Mountain?

Under U.S. real estate law, a person can become the legal owner of the real property of another by “adverse possession.” This requires the new owner to make use of the property for a certain period of time and meet a number of other requirements. In our hypothetical scenario, however, Smaug is a conqueror of a nation, so adverse possession may not be the right way to view the situation.

In the context of war, the so-called “right of conquest” once was a principle of international law that legitimized conquerors of nations. Now, however, “wars of aggression” (i.e., not for self-defense, but for territorial or other gains) are negatively defined in U.N. Resolution 3314, but are not illegal per se.

War crimes, however, are illegal. Murder is a war crime that Smaug is likely guilty of in connection with his taking of the Lonely Mountain. As a war criminal, he likely would not be allowed to remain in possession of the Lonely Mountain. This includes the loss of the masses of gold and jewels within it, along with the key symbol of dwarvish royalty, the Arkenstone.