Law and the Multiverse Mailbag II

In this week’s mailbag we look at three questions from our email that touch on alternate universes, jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Phantom Zone, and contracts.  As always, if you have questions or post suggestions, please send them to and

I. Jeff asks, “In the TV series Fringe, the Olivia from another universe was exposed as an impostor and arrested.  What charges would she face?”

This presents an interesting issue.  What rights does an alternate-universe version of a person have outside their home universe?  Are they committing a crime just by being present in a different universe?

I think a court could take the (somewhat uncharitable) view that Olivia was guilty of impersonating “Olivia Prime” (i.e., the real Olivia).  Even though they share the same DNA and many of the same memories, they are not the same person.  If she had been upfront about her origin from the beginning, that might not have been a problem.  It could also be argued that a person from an alternate universe has no citizenship in this universe.  In Olivia’s case, she’s a citizen of the Alternate USA, not the ‘real’ USA, which would make her guilty of violating immigration laws.

(Note that this is different from a time-traveling citizen.  In that case there’s a continuity between the past, present, and future versions of a country that could serve as the basis for respecting a time-traveler’s citizenship, particularly one who travels from the past into the present.)

II. Eric writes, (redacted to limit spoilers) “Recently, Green Arrow killed [someone] in the Phantom Zone.  His identity was exposed, and he was tried for murder in Star City.  He was found not guilty, but the judge banished him from the city.”  Eric would like to know if the judge would even have jurisdiction over a place like the Phantom Zone and if the judge would have the authority to banish someone from a city if they were found not guilty.

The jurisdictional question is an interesting one.  In general, a government’s jurisdiction is limited to its territory, but there are many exceptions.  I presume Green Arrow was tried in a state court.  States typically have statutes creating criminal liability for the commission of a crime if any element of the crime was committed within that state.  If Green Arrow formed the intent to kill his target while in Star City (presently located in California), then California would have jurisdiction over the murder even though it occurred outside the state because intent (“malice aforethought”) is an element of murder.  Cal. Penal Code § 27(a)(1) and 187(a).  Once Green Arrow returned to California, he could be arrested and tried.

I don’t know where the judge got the authority to banish Green Arrow despite his acquittal by the jury.  Double jeopardy ordinarily prevents such a thing.  It’s possible that he could be re-tried for a lesser included offense of murder (e.g. manslaughter, battery, etc), but that would require a new trial.  It could be that the banishment was given without authority, and Green Arrow accepted it voluntarily rather than fight it.  In general, though, this seems a bit fishy.

III. Ken writes, “The Greatest American Hero once had a story where Ralph used his super-suit to play pro baseball.  To avoid the plot disruption that would happen if he suddenly got very rich, the story said that they used legal tricks to not pay him–they gave him an insurance policy that was written up to look like income.  Is this possible?” (The episode is available on

It’s entirely possible, but there could be some ways out of it.  The contract was (badly) negotiated by Ralph’s friend Bill Maxwell, who represented himself as an agent.  The contract put Ralph’s salary in a trust, and what Ralph really got was a life insurance policy on himself in the amount of $3 million.  The life insurance policy was far from worthless, even if it wasn’t what Bill or Ralph might have wanted, so the contract doesn’t fail for lack of consideration (i.e. exchanged value).  And the law generally will not step in to save a party just because it made a poor business decision, and actors, artists, athletes, and others get the short end of the stick on contract negotiations all the time.

However, an argument could be made that Bill was mistaken as to the compensation terms (which is true) and that the contract was so lop-sided that enforcement of the mistaken terms would be unconscionable.  Gross disparity in value exchanged is one basis for a finding of unconscionability, and the disparity was pretty bad in this case.  A $3 million life insurance policy for a healthy young man (which Ralph was) carries an annual premium of something like $4500 for a 5 year term (close enough, since there was some talk of the contract being annual).  Compare that to the MLB minimum salary of about $33,500 in 1982 and the average salary of about $242,000.  Heck, compare it to the then-minimum wage of about $6,700.  Given Ralph’s amazing performance as a pitcher, that’s a gross disparity.

I’m not going to look up the state of the law in California in 1982, but modern California courts are comfortable with unmaking a contract (called rescission) because of unconscionability.  See, e.g., Donovan v. RRL Corp., 27 P.3d 702  (Cal. Sup. Ct. 2001) (“gross disparity in the values exchanged may be an important factor in a determination that a contract is unconscionable…In ascertaining whether rescission is warranted for a unilateral mistake of fact, substantive unconscionability often will constitute the determinative factor”).  In that case a contract was held unconscionable when it only involved a 32% disparity from fair market value.  That’s far less than the disparity in this case.  So I think Ralph could probably get out of the contract, and under a quantum meruit theory he might even be able to get reasonable compensation for the games he did play.

19 responses to “Law and the Multiverse Mailbag II

  1. Olivia also seduced Peter while maintaining that impersonation, which may qualify as ‘rape by fraud’ in places that have that crime on the books, right? Or any other lesser offenses that, as a general rule, only twins can get up to in the real world…

  2. Alternate Olivia also collected evidence to try and deter (or derail) ongoing investigations, and even kills a shapeshifter important to the investigation. I’m not sure that those are provable facts to the prosecutors in the show, but she is guilty of them nonetheless.

    Also, when she is discovered, she holds Peter at gunpoint, and forces him to inject himself with something.

    So technically, she’s guilty of… whatever crime that would be. Plus, if there were such a crime as “conspiracy to treason”, she’d be guilty of that. I guess you could just call it high treason. And finally, it’s very obvious that obstruction of justice could be tossed in, based on what the audience sees.

    • Given her not being a citizen of that version of the USA, high treason would be off the table. You could compile a laundry list of other charges from espionage to immigration fraud to aggravated assault, and have a reasonable chance of making them stick. Assuming also that you wanted the fact of alternative universe being anything more than a theory of Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking and the like in that ficton.

  3. How could alt-Olivia be guilty of high treason if she’s a citizen of alt-USA and not this-USA? Don’t you need to be an American to commit treason against America?

    • 18 USC 2381 defines treason thusly: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason”

      So, I don’t know if you have to be a citizen exactly, but you do have to owe allegiance to the US. I would hazard a guess that, for example, a lawful permanent resident who was a member of the military would qualify. If alt-Olivia is a citzen of alt-USA then she doesn’t owe the real US allegiance, and so could not be guilty of treason. Nonetheless she has committed numerous other crimes, including obstruction of justice, theft, and presumably something like conspiracy to commit terrorist acts since the alt-US government seems determined to destroy the world and the real US with it.

      An interesting question is whether, as a citizen of the alt-US operating under orders from its government, she might better be classified as a POW, since it appears that the alt-US considers itself at war with our world. Otherwise she might be classified as something like an enemy combatant or a regular criminal.

      • Alt-Olivia is from a place which belongs to no recognized nation. Sure, alt-USA claims to be a government, but we don’t have diplomatic relations with it–wouldn’t this be similar to a terrorist attacking from a Taliban-controlled area, given that we don’t recognize the Taliban?

        On the other hand, we do think that Taliban-controlled places belong to a government, just not the Taliban. Having a terrorist come from a place where we don’t recognize anyone’s sovereignty seems to be a unique situation with no real-life parallel.

      • A nation does not need to have diplomatic relations with another nation in order to recognize that it is a sovereign entity. Two nations at war generally do not have diplomatic relations, but there’s no doubt that they are both sovereign nations in each other’s eyes.

        There are a few countries that the US does not have diplomatic relations with: Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Taiwan. In the case of Bhutan and Taiwan it’s more an issue of a lack of formal diplomatic relations, but in the case of Cuba, Iran, and North Korea there’s very little in the way of diplomatic relations at all. But the US does not deny that Cuba, Iran, and North Korea are legitimate sovereign nations.

  4. Out of curiosity, how does the “alternate Olivias are not the same person” finding square with the earlier blog entry about how dozens or hundreds of alternate Lex Luthors could be tried as one perp by an interdimensional court to save time?

  5. Touching on Erik’s question about Star City’s jurisdiction to try Green Arrow for murder in the Phantom Zone: If Krypton had not been destroyed, would a Conflicts of Law issue arise out of the competing jurisdictions? This is assuming that the Phantom Zone was originally under Krypton’s jurisdiction considering it was developed by a Kryptonian.

    • I’m not as well versed in conflicts of law in the criminal context, but I think there wouldn’t be a significant conflict. Multiple governments can have jurisdiction to prosecute the same crime. Here’s a US example:

      In State A, Defendant forms the intent to commit murder (let’s presume Defendant leaves a note as handy proof). Defendant then travels to State B where the murder is committed. It is likely that both A and B have jurisdiction to try Defendant for murder. In fact, even if Defendant is acquitted in State A he could still be tried in State B without offending the double jeopardy rule (and vice versa).

      So Krypton and the US might have to fight over who got to try Green Arrow first, but there wouldn’t necessarily be a problem with both governments trying him. The biggest problem would likely be extraditing Green Arrow from the US / Earth to Krypton for trial. Unless the US had an extradition treaty with Krypton, the US would not be happy about giving him over, although they might not be able to stop it.

      One wonders just how hard Krypton would fight for jurisdiction over the case, anyway, given that the perpetrator and victim were both humans and the crime was committed in the Phantom Zone, which, even if it were under Kryptonian jurisdiction, probably isn’t an area that the Kryptonians would care much about policing. It’s not exactly Kryptonopolis or Argo City.

      • After reading your State A and State B example, the John Mohammed and John Lee Malvo trials came to mind (the D.C. Snipers). If I remember correctly, Virginia tried them first and then Maryland had its turn.

        I’m curious to see a future blog post on extradition given all of the jurisdictional questions and issues people keep posting.

    • The Phantom Zone was not created by Kryptonians, it was merely discovered by them. It has apparently always existed — Jor-El just discovered how to travel to and from it.

  6. Also regarding Green Arrow…banishment? I assume you can make “stay out of this city” a condition of parole, but is banishment a viable punishment at all for a crime? Considering that the city is Oliver’s home, could that qualify as “Cruel and Unusual”? It certainly seems unusual, at the very least.

    • Setting aside for the moment the issue of whether the judge could lawfully issue the punishment in the first place (not only the jury acquittal but also the fact that punishment are typically defined by statute these days), I don’t think banishment from a single city would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Consider a normal prison sentence. Those are typically served outside one’s city, and so are in some sense a banishment. Even a lifelong banishment would surely be no worse than a life sentence in prison, and the crime at issue was murder, for which life in prison is a common sentence.

  7. James Daily | December 29, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Reply I think banishment would probably violate the 8th Amendment in the same way that stripping a person of his or her citizenship does. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).

    From the 8th amendment post. Here you maintain the banishment would violate the 8th amendment. Not trying to be a jerk, just loking for clarification.

    Love the site.

    • **that should say looking for clarification, not loking**

    • Oh, in that post the issue was banishment to another dimension like the Phantom Zone or the Negative Zone. That’s very different from being banished from one city in one state. Being forced to leave the country (indeed the planet) is much closer to stripping someone of his or her citizenship or deporting a citizen, which are both frowned upon.

  8. An unrelated question for a future mailbag. Comic book super-brains often find themselves having to create a vaccine against some horrific illness that either comes from space or is created by a supervillain. (Or , on a smaller scale, to help a friend, such as Reed Richards’ ongoing efforts to cure the Thing, or Superman’s pre-Crisis need to rescue Lois Lane and Lana Lang from an accidentally released Kryptonian superbug.) Would there be any issues in dealing with the FDA or would public necessity excuse a lot?

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