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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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 CBS.com)
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.