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. Briney, 183 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.