Superpowered Minors, Part One

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.

III. Conclusion

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.

11 responses to “Superpowered Minors, Part One

  1. On your post today about children, you mentioned Professor X. I wonder if there is potential criminal liability for Xavier when he is soliciting children to his school from parents, but not disclosing that it is a mutant school (e.g., Jean Grey)? It is kidnapping to have a parent send the child (lilely accross state lines) under false pretenses? It seems especially applicable to a child like Pryde who (if I recall) came the the School when she was very young.

  2. Interesting analysis. What about liability under things like anti-gang legislation? Groups of metahuman minors frequently join forces. You mentioned the Teen Titans. There are also the Runaways. A lot of what they do is likely to be against the law.

  3. I’d say that the sophistication is doubly important because, on the superhero’s side, it’s hard to argue that a kid who has dedicated his free time to helping and protecting others where the local authorities can’t is anything but sophisticated and mature. With exceptions, of course, in cases like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the majority of adult characters aren’t likely to believe that the “mission” is real.

    Pulling back a few, doesn’t the subject’s age affect the right to privacy in most areas? Would Robin’s identity be better protected than Batman’s, for example, and could Batman use that to his advantage in a situation where his identity might be revealed?

    And off on a tangent, what might happen when aging occurs in peculiar ways? There are a handful of cases where a hero or villain was a long-lived person stranded in the body of a child. And, of course, there are myriad clones whose bodies were artificially aged to adulthood. How does one deal with a problem like a sixty-year-old who’s physically pre-teen or a grown man who was literally “born yesterday”?

    • With exceptions, of course, in cases like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the majority of adult characters aren’t likely to believe that the “mission” is real.

      Well, now that we’re finishing up the Season 8 comics, everybody knows the mission is real… and this isn’t that great considering that various parties have been pushing this whole pro-vampire, anti-slayer agenda in the media.

    • Simply using your abilities to attempt to protect other people is not a sign of maturity.

  4. Where would juvenile law stand on reincarnated individuals? I’m thinking specifically of Jenny Spark/Quantum. As far as I can remember (I need to dig up my old comics to confirm), she’s centuries old mentally but in a body that is, for a period of time, a child and preteen. How would definitions be drawn between physical age and mental age? I’m also interested in John’s bringing up of cloned or otherwise manufactured individuals. Could you convict a man who’s physically and mentally twenty but came out of the tank the day before and was never told murder was wrong?

    Also, as a first-time poster, I just need to say I already adore this blog. I’m a pre-law student and a major comic book fan, so this is pretty much like someone rooted around in my brain and made a blog for me on its contents. If you know about a Doctor Who-themed wine tasting blog, please, steer me there.

    • Personally, I’m not really interested in legal arguments EXCEPT in regards to superheroes, aliens, clones, etc. I think legal arguments tend to get overlooked in fiction and the excuse is “suspension of disbelief”, ie that if you don’t know any better you will still enjoy the stories. But what if you do know better? Is it so much to ask that writers get things right so we can still enjoy their stories?

    • Well, the Doctor did once land on the roof of the Fantastic Four’s HQ, when Marvel held the comic rights, so he’d arguably fall within the ambit of this blog. Most of his actions on Earth would be governed by UK law, but he does provide some interesting examples of how the law and time travel might interact, and there’s also the question of whether his differing regenerations are legally the same person, given the major uncontrolled shifts in personality and appearance.

      As for individuals whose biological and calender ages don’t match (adult clones, immortal children, time travellers, etc) I suspect the key word in the common law rule is presumed. Presumptions can be rebutted. Proof that the apparent child was 700 years old, or the apparent adult 7 days old, would be enough to reverse the presumption.

  5. “So, for example, a superstrong five year old who throws a tantrum, devastating a city block, would not be held criminally liable.”

    That would explain much about The Powerpuff Girls, given that they were toddlers (and actually much younger, having been artificially created) who often caused massive damage to the City of Townsville through their actions. In their origin movie, the girls played an innocent game of tag that destroyed half the city, a textbook illustration of young children not considering the consequences of their actions. However, their creator, Professor Utonium, was arrested in the wake of this, although the specific charges were unclear and he was released the next day.

    “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.”

    Alternatively, many young superheroes and supervillains alike come from backgrounds that have forced them to “grow up fast,” to learn to be self-sufficient and responsible at an earlier age in response to a childhood trauma such as the death of family members. Or they may have been trained by ruthless parents or superiors to become hardened and self-sufficient at an early age (I believe this describes the Damien Wayne character currently bearing the mantle of Robin in the Batman comics).

  6. Unrelated to this post (sort of). Have you seen this story?:

  7. I’m reminded of Stewie from Family Guy. (While not superhero, he does fit the Genius Baby trope.) He clearly has intent and capability and yet no-one accepts his “take over the world” or “kill Lois” plots.

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