Today’s post was inspired by William, who pointed us to Amazing Spider-Man #657.
In the issue, Spider-Man reminisces with Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, and the Thing about the recently deceased Human Torch, each one telling a story about him. The Invisible Woman’s story involves a fight with members of the Fearsome Four. While searching for the Four, Spider-Man and the Invisible Woman find the Human Torch signing autographs. Seeing an opportunity to bring him down a peg, Spider-Man sneaks up and pantses the Human Torch. Sure enough, the Fearsome Four choose that moment to show up. With the Torch too embarrassed to fight pants-less, the situation looks grim until the Invisible Woman realizes how she can turn the tables. Using her power to make things invisible, she effectively removes the pants of the three Fearsome Four members, who are then easily rounded up by Spidey and the Torch.
As the police take the villains away everything looks like it will turn out okay until the Invisible Woman (aka Sue Storm) explains her trick. The officer taking her statement says “Ms. Storm, I’m sorry, but if what you say is true, I’m afraid I’ll have to bring you in as well.” Asked what she’s being charged with he replies: “Indecent exposure. She pantsed three men in public. That’s a serious offense.” And sure enough she gets arrested and booked, though apparently she avoids conviction.
So, is rendering someone’s pants invisible indecent exposure? Or if it isn’t, is at least some other kind of crime? Luckily we know the story took place in New York, so we can refer to the law there.
I. Indecent Exposure
In New York the crime commonly called indecent exposure is called “exposure of a person.” Exposure of a person is a violation, less serious than even a misdemeanor, and is (basically) defined thus:
A person is guilty of exposure if he appears in a public place in such a manner that the private or intimate parts of his body are unclothed or exposed.
N.Y. Penal Law § 245.01.
As you can see, exposure is defined in terms of the exposed person being responsible for the exposure, rather than being exposed by another person. So could Sue Storm be guilty of exposure of a person?
Probably not. As mentioned, the statute is worded in terms of the nude person exposing themselves, not being exposed by another. The best theory we can come up with is that, if the villains could claim a defense of duress (i.e. that they did not intend to expose themselves but rather were compelled to do so), then perhaps Sue could be liable under the theory that someone who compels another to commit a crime is liable for that crime. But this is a weak argument because the villains didn’t remove their pants under Sue’s compulsion; rather, she rendered them invisible all on her own.
So if she can’t be brought up on charges of indecent exposure, are there any other options?
II. Assault, Invasion of Privacy, and Emotional Distress
Ordinarily a person who exposes another would be guilty of assault, since normally the only way to do so is to forcibly remove their clothing. Even someone with the power of telekinesis could still be charged with assault, since even an intangible force can be enough to constitute assault. See, e.g., Adams v. Com., 534 S.E.2d 347 (Ct. App. Va. 2000) (holding that shining a laser pointer at a police officer constituted assault). But the Invisible Woman’s power doesn’t seem to touch an object at all but rather to warp light around it. So she might not be guilty of assault, either.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel we have the torts of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The villains could theoretically try to sue Sue (heh) in civil court, but it would be a hard sell.
Even if a prosecutor could bring an exposure or assault charge under some theory (or if the villains sued in tort), Sue would have an excellent claim to self-defense and defense of others. The villains attacked without provocation and clearly intended to kill the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and Spider-Man. Since the heroes would have been justified in killing the villains, something as mild as a minor public humiliation would certainly be a reasonable force.
On the whole this is a pretty good issue (for those interested, it’s collected in Spider-Man: Matters of Life and Death), but we aren’t surprised that Sue apparently managed to beat the rap.