Mailbag for October 24, 2011

We haven’t done a mailbag feature in a while, and we’ve built up a little bit of a backlog of questions.  Today’s question comes from Caleb, who asks “Under the Constitution, would RoboCop be considered a person or property?”

This is an interesting question!  As we see it, the answer hinges on whether James Alex Murphy was legally dead before he became RoboCop.  Michigan has adopted the Uniform Determination of Death Act as MCL 333.1033:

(1) An individual who has sustained either of the following is dead:
(a) Irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions.
(b) Irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.

Notice that it allows for someone to be declared dead if either are true.  In Murphy’s case, all that was left were parts of his digestive tract, most of his brain, several organs and his left arm, though the arm was later amputated.  Depending on what exactly “several organs” refers to, this could well mean that there was irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions (i.e. that he no longer had a heart or lungs).  In that case, the fact that his brain function could later be restored wouldn’t necessarily matter. (Though we’re sure that the law would be changed in a world where people’s brains could be maintained separately from the rest of their bodies).

So supposing Murphy was properly declared legally dead despite the advanced technology of the RoboCop program, then RoboCop could be considered property rather than a person.  (There might still be difficulty overcoming laws regarding the disposal of human remains, but maybe Murphy made a legal gift of his organs for research purposes.)  But if he never died then he would still be a person.

An interesting side-effect of RoboCop not being a person is that he (or maybe ‘it’) could arguably no longer use lethal force in self-defense.  While a person may use lethal force to defense himself or herself, lethal force may not be used to protect property.  Thus, a robot can’t use lethal force to defend itself.

It also raises the issue of whether RoboCop can lawfully use lethal force at all.  The law frowns on automated lethal devices in other contexts, for example using lethal booby traps to protect a home from trespassers.  See, e.g., Katko v. Briney183 NW 2d 657 (Iowa 1971) (“the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property”).  Even a remotely-operated drone is at least controlled by a human, and it’s not clear that a police force could legally employ a lethal automated robot.

24 responses to “Mailbag for October 24, 2011

  1. “An interesting side-effect of RoboCop being a person is that he (or maybe ‘it’) could arguably no longer use lethal force in self-defense. ”

    You need to add a _not_ in this sentence or it makes no sense.

  2. If Robocop is not a person, then if he used lethal force I would assume that the injured parties would have to sue OCP. Does this also mean that some employees of OCP would also be arrested for homicide?

    • I’m not sure if you could charge them with homicide* but other charges could probably be made to stick.

      At one point in the first movie the titular Robocop makes a recording showing an individual confess to ordering a man’s murder. Could this be admitted as evidence in a court considering Robocop’s unusual nature?

      *Or even aiding and abetting if Robocop is considered property.

  3. Doesn’t all this argument depend on how you define “irreversible”, If later a real human heart is transplanted into the Robocop body have we not reversed the situation. Also where do you draw the line between Murphy’s situation and that of someone with a Jarvic Artificial Heart? Is such a person legally dead?

    • A person with an artificial heart still has a working circulatory system, even if the pumping part is temporarily done by an outside force during the actual transplant operation. Plus, even if the circulatory function stops during the operation, as long as the operation is successful then the cessation was not irreversible. And even during the operation, presumably the patient is still using their own lungs (the definition requires cessation of both circulatory and respiratory functions).

      • That was my point, something must be oxygenating and circulating blood to keep Morphy’s brain alive. Therefore he is not and never was “Irreversibly” dead, just like a man with a Jarvic heart.

      • That’s a good point, actually. When I wrote the post I thought of the cardiopulmonary system in terms of the specific organs rather than more general terms. That argues pretty strongly for RoboCop being a person because Murphy never legally died (although he did suffer what amounts to severe amnesia).

  4. “While a person may use lethal force to defense himself or herself, lethal force may not be used to protect property”

    IANAL, but doesn’t that vary by state? OCP would probably be better off having robocop work in Texas rather than Michigan.

    • I don’t think defense of property is going to work, even in Texas.

    • TimothyAWiseman

      I also am not a lawyer, but no that is universal thoughout the US. The law consistently places life above property.

      Now, you may use some (but not lethal) force in the defense of property and many jurisdictions affirmatively state that you have no duty to retreat (or least have no duty to retreat under certain circumstances, such as when in your own home). So, people can wind up in a situation where they chose to defend their property with less than lethal force, but then are forced to defend themselves with lethal force if the person threatening their property escalates the situation and threatens them. That may cause some confusion.

      I also believe there may be some exceptions for military property, but that tends to apply to property where unauthorized handling can easily be presumed to be dangerous to life

    • To everyone who has said that the law is universal and always places life above property … what about Joe Horn?

      He shot dead (in the back, as they were fleeing) two people who were robbing his neighbour’s house. Not even his own house.

      He was cleared – “no billed” – by a grand jury. Texas Penal Code ss 9.41 9.42 and 9.43 were cited as allowing lethal force in defence on one’s own property.

      • A grand jury’s refusal to indict is not necessarily a valid statement about the law.

        The Texas version of the castle doctrine—the law that Horn cited in his 911 call—allows for lethal force to be used in the defense of one’s own home (as opposed to being required to flee the house). It would not apply to RoboCop, as he is not a house.

        In any case, Horn was almost certainly wrong, since it was his neighbor’s house, not his own, that was allegedly threatened. There is no defense presented during a grand jury hearing, and the prosecutor has control over what evidence is shown. It’s likely the grand jury did not hear any arguments about the castle doctrine laws. The result in that case was, essentially, jury nullification by the grand jury.

      • Thanks, James. That cleared it up.

  5. Hmm… while RoboCop certainly used lethal force, did he use it to protect himself, or just kill douchebags that were breaking the law?

    RoboCop 2 (Cain) seems a clearly picture, in that Cain was murdered and his brain harvested. Still maintained his desire for Nuke though…

  6. “An interesting side-effect of RoboCop not being a person is that he (or maybe ‘it’) could arguably no longer use lethal force in self-defense.”

    Even with human police officers the issue is complicated, isn’t it? I mean police officers are allowed to carry guns and they are trained to use them but they are also trained to not panic and not shoot innocents. By contrast, a person with a permit to legally carry a gun but not having been trained as a police officer might be able to have an easier time offering self defense as a defense for shooting someone because a jury would be more likely to believe that the shooter reasonably believed that he or she was in danger and simply panicked at the sight of the perceived threat. Thus, in a sense, Robocop would be in the same position as a well trained police officer who wouldn’t be expected to go around shooting people unless they actually posed a danger to themselves and, by extension, others.

  7. It’s worth noting that in the original film, RoboCop actually didn’t use lethal force all that much, at least not by the standards of action-movie medical science wherein shooting someone in the shoulder or leg is generally nonlethal. On his rounds early in the film, he tossed people around, threw them through windows, shot them in non-vital areas, or shot their bikes out from under them. In the drug lab, he shot a lot of people, but mostly in the shoulder or leg, and he chose to arrest Boddicker rather than killing him (though he’d certainly be open to charges of excessive force in that arrest). Overall, he didn’t seem to use specifically lethal force (at least by action-movie definitions) except as necessary in self-defense, though of course, as discussed above, he may not have that entitlement. It was only in the second movie that he defaulted to a kill shot in just about every instance (the single exception being when he left a criminal alive in order to interrogate him), which is just one of the second film’s many ludicrous excesses. The third movie and the television series toned down his violence to accommodate his younger fanbase.

    Oh, and the character’s name is Alex Murphy, not James. Jimmy Murphy was his son’s name.

    • The law would still consider shooting someone in the shoulder or leg to be deadly force, even given RoboCop’s apparently unerring accuracy. And there are good reasons for this. There’s always the possibility that they could bleed to death, that their anatomy could be unusual (e.g. some people’s hearts are on the right side of their chest), or that the bullet could bounce around or fragment after entry.

      Thanks for the correction on the name. Wikipedia gives his full name (Alexander James Murphy) and I latched on to the middle name for some reason. I’ve corrected the post.

      • If Murphy was considered property and not a person then wouldn’t it potentially violate gun laws. As a dead person he doesn’t have Second Amendment rights.

      • True, in the real world, shooting in the leg or shoulder is justifiably considered deadly force, because if you hit a major artery, the victim can bleed to death very quickly. But in TV/movie universes, such injuries are often portrayed as reliably nonlethal and not even significantly incapacitating — for instance, the current PERSON OF INTEREST practically lives on this trope. So in an action-movie universe where human anatomy follows those principles, the laws defining deadly force might be different.

  8. IIRC, there is a line where the OCP people indicate that Murphy, as a Detroit cop, signed something like an organ donor card that grants OCP permission to do whatever they want with his body. So no problem with improper disposal of remains.

  9. Is there any law saying that if you are dead then you are not a person, or that you are property? Maybe he’s a dead person with rights.

    • Isaac Asimov once wrote a story in which a ghost pretending to be alive had someone file suit against another ghost to evict it from the house it was haunting, in order to legally establish the squatters rights of ghosts (making exorcism illegal)

      However in the case of Murphy there’s no question that even if he was legally dead, as Robocop he is alive, The courts could decide that he’s legally a new person (much as Frankenstein’s Monster in the movies is a new person made from recycled parts), especially when he’s still amnesiac and can’t deny it…but he’d still be a living person.

  10. I believe (based on the first movie) Robocop would have a clear insanity defense based on the “irresistible influence or compulsion” imposed on him by the OCP programming.

    However, I think that applying current law to Robocop is troublesome, given that substantial changes in the legal landscape are evident in the film. (Most significantly, the substitution of private enterprise for government actors in law enforcement.)

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