One topic that we’ve been asked about by several people is the issue of superpowered minors, whether acting as superheroes or supervillains. There are many examples, such as the Teen Titans, young mutants like Kitty Pryde, and Spider-Man (in his younger days). This post, the first in a series, is about the minors themselves and their criminal liability. Future posts will cover torts and contracts. The legal issues involving their parents, guardians (like Bruce Wayne), and school teachers (like Professor X) will also be addressed in future installments.
I. Criminal Responsibility
The first thing to consider is whether a superpowered child can be held criminally liable at all. There issue here has to do with intent. Every crime is made of up of elements, and in almost every case, one of those elements is possessing a certain kind of intent. So, for example, murder requires that 1) you kill someone, and 2) you do it on purpose. If you kill someone without meaning to, it’s still a crime–probably negligent homicide–but it isn’t murder. The only difference is the intent, because the dead person is just as dead whether or not you meant to do it.
But children are not the same as adults and are generally not capable of thinking with the same kind of intentional, rational processes that adults often take for granted. It’s pretty hard to argue that a four-year-old really means to do anything. More than that, young children are generally not capable of putting together cause and effect the same way that adults are, nor are they capable of perceiving harm to others very well. They simply lack the awareness and self-awareness to reach that kind of mental state. Hence the common law presumption that very young children are incapable of forming the intent necessary to be held criminally culpable for their actions. This presumption gets weaker the older the child gets and disappears completely around age fourteen in most jurisdictions. This varies from state to state. Some states define a minimum age by statute (these vary from 6 to 12 years of age), but most states rely on the common law rule or something like it. At common law “children below the age of seven are conclusively presumed to be incapable of committing a crime, children between the ages of seven and 14 are rebuttably deemed incapable of committing a crime, and those 14 or over are presumed capable.” 21 Am. Jur. 2d Criminal Law § 34. So, for example, a superstrong five year old who throws a tantrum, devastating a city block, would not be held criminally liable. But a sullen superstrong 15 year old that decides to take up supervillainy out of youthful rebellion will likely be held responsible.
II. Superpowered Juvenile Delinquents
Presuming they are capable of criminal liability, superpowered children who commit crimes may be tried in juvenile court, or they may be tried as adults. Being tried in juvenile court is much preferable. Not only are the penalties less and the protections greater, but the whole role of the court is different. “[J]uvenile courts do not exist to punish children for their transgressions against society. The juvenile court stands in the position of a protecting parent rather than a prosecutor.” In re Gault, 99 Ariz 181, 188 (1965) (en banc).
The decision to try a child as an adult (i.e. for the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction over the matter) is usually prompted by a motion from the prosecutor. The decision to waive jurisdiction is not undertaken lightly; there is a hearing, a right to counsel, and several other procedural safeguards. The Supreme Court has recommended (and nearly every jurisdiction has adopted, in one form or another) eight factors for deciding whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. Kent v. US, 383 U.S. 541, 566-67 (1966). A few of the factors are of particular interest when considering superpowered minors:
1. The seriousness of the alleged offense to the community and whether the protection of the community requires waiver;
2. Whether the alleged offense was committed in an aggressive, violent, premeditated or willful manner;
6. The sophistication and maturity of the Juvenile as determined by consideration of his home, environmental situation, emotional attitude and pattern of living;
8. The prospects for adequate protection of the public and the likelihood of reasonable rehabilitation of the juvenile (if he is found to have committed the alleged offense) by the use of procedures, services and facilities currently available to the Juvenile Court.
Factors 1, 2, and 8 are of particular interest here because of the heightened threat that a superpowered criminal, even a juvenile one, poses. A budding supervillain is, all things being equal, more likely to commit serious offenses that require adult treatment in order to protect the community. Likewise, many superpowers lend themselves to violent crimes. Finally, if there are no special procedures, services, and facilities available to a Juvenile Court for handling superpowered delinquents, then the adequate protection of the public may require trying the defendant in adult court, where presumably more secure facilities and appropriate procedures and services are available.
Factor 6 is of interest because a relatively common superpower is enhanced intellect, and a court may consider a superintelligent juvenile to be more sophisticated and thus more appropriately charged as an adult.
Superpowered individuals, whether young superheroes who make mistakes while fighting crime or supervillains getting an early start, may find themselves liable for crimes they commit. In order to avoid being treated as adults, they should be especially careful to avoid serious, violent crimes and the use of their powers in ways that might require special measures to protect the public.