Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin is the 2011 film adaptation of the legendary comic book series of the same name (it is now available on Blu-ray). The comics were written and illustrated by Georges Prosper Remi, who went by the pen-name “Hergé” and came out from 1929 to 1976, making it one of the longest-running and most popular European comics ever. The movie as such is rather vague about its setting and even its time period, but it definitely raise one legal question we touched on briefly in our post on lost property almost a year ago: treasure troves and salvage. The former post focused mostly on buried treasure, but The Adventures of Tintin leads us to consider a slightly different subject: sunken treasure. The basic question is this: Even assuming Tintin and Haddock can find the sunken treasure, can they keep it? There are some minor spoilers inside. Continue reading

Minor Superheroes and Property Ownership

Today’s post will be a fairly quick one.  The topic comes courtesy of Frank, who asks, “Aliens gift the Power Pack children with superpowers, costumes and a sentient robot. Don’t their parents technically own these gifts?”  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no.

For well over a century, the common law doctrine has been this:

[A father] has no title to the property of the child, nor is the capacity or right of the latter to take property or receive money by grant, gift or otherwise, except as a compensation for services, in any degree qualified or limited during minority.  Whatever therefore an infant acquires which does not come to him as a compensation for services rendered, belongs absolutely to him, and his father cannot interpose any claim to it, either as against the child, or as against third persons who claim title or possession from or under the infant.  Hoblyn v. Johnson, 55 P.3d 1219, 1228 (Wyo. 2002) (quoting Banks v. Conant, 96 Mass. 497 (1867)).  

As the Hoblyn court explained, “this opinion still provides an accurate statement of the law.”  And it seems to be true in Virginia as well, which is where the group received the gifts.  Midkiff v. Midkiff, 201 Va. 829, 831 (1960) (“the common law is in force in Virginia, except where modified by statute” and “at common law an infant was entitled to his own property rights”).  Since the costumes and the sentient robot / spaceship were given as gifts, the children do indeed own them.

Now, you may have heard of the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or the related Uniform Transfers to Minors Act.  The former covers deposit accounts, securities, and insurance; the latter covers property more generally.  These model laws, which have been adopted in many states, including Virginia, allow for property to be given to minors but held by a custodian until the minor reaches the age of majority (21 in the model version of the Acts, 18 in Virginia’s version).  VA Code Ann. § 31-37.  The primary purpose of the Acts is to avoid the hassle and expense of setting up trusts, not to allow gifts to be given that otherwise couldn’t be nor to be the only way to give a minor a gift.  Furthermore, in order to be a gift under the Acts, the gift has to be given in a particular way that specifically invokes the Act.  So if Aelfyre Whitemane wanted to give the costumes and robot to the children but didn’t think they could be trusted with them until they reached adulthood, the UTMA would be one way to accomplish that.  Even so, the custodian need not necessarily be the children’s parent but could be basically any competent adult who agreed to take on the job.

So to sum up: there are a lot of potential issues with superpowered minors, but gadget-based minor superheroes (and villains) can legally own their gadgets independently of their parents or guardians.

The Incredibles

In today’s mailbag we have a question that several people have asked about, most recently Thomas, who wrote: “In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible is sued for foiling a suicide attempt. Would a superhero be liable for something like that? Aren’t suicide attempts illegal?”

(If you haven’t seen The Incredibles, you should check it out.  Like most Pixar movies, it’s pretty great.)

This is an interesting question with significant ramifications for the story.  If the suicide attempt was a crime, then arguably Mr. Incredible had an airtight defense: he was justified in using reasonable force to prevent the commission of a crime.  And if the lawsuit was bogus, then maybe the supers wouldn’t have been driven into hiding in the first place.  It’s not clear what state The Incredibles takes place in, so rather than give an exact answer we’ll have to look at the broader history of the issue.  It’s also not clear to what extent Mr. Incredible was acting as a government official with the benefit of qualified immunity.  For simplicity, we’ll assume he was acting as a private citizen.

I. Common Law History

At common law suicide and attempted suicide were both crimes: suicide was a felony and attempted suicide was a misdemeanor.  Since a “successful” suicide can’t be punished in the usual way, a more creative sanction was developed: the deceased was given an ignominious burial and his assets were forfeited to the crown.  The burial usually took the form of driving a stake through the body and burying it at a crossroads (i.e. not a proper Christian burial).  This was the law in the early American colonial era, but by the time of the American Revolution the states had generally moved away from the common law punishments, although suicide was still technically a crime, just an unpunished one.  See Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 711-13 (1997).

II. Attempted Suicide and Modern Developments

Most courts held that once suicide itself was no longer punishable, attempted suicide could likewise no longer be punished.  May v. Pennell, 101 Me. 516 (1906); Com. v. Dennis, 105 Mass. 162 (1870).  At least one court took a different view, however, holding that attempt was still punishable.  State v. La Fayette, 15 N.J. Misc. 115 (Ct. Com. Pleas 1937).  A few states, such as New York (though it has since repealed it), made attempted suicide a crime by statute even as they rejected the common law crime of suicide.  See Darrow v. Family Fund Soc., 116 N.Y. 537 (1889).  This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the attempter can be sentenced to jail or fined, whereas punishing a suicide only punishes the innocent (and likely grieving) survivors, which was the main reason for abolishing the common law punishments in the first place.

Coming somewhat closer to the modern era we have State v. Willis, 255 N.C. 473 (1961).  This North Carolina case followed the logic of La Fayette. Suicide was a common law crime and is therefore still a felony under North Carolina law, which defines a felony as, among other things, “a crime which was a felony at common law.” Similarly, attempted suicide was still a misdemeanor.  The fact that suicide had no punishment was immaterial because North Carolina had a catch-all statute that said “All misdemeanors, where a specific punishment is not prescribed shall be punished as misdemeanors at common law.”  In this case, that means fines and imprisonment were theoretically possible, although the court recognized that “This, of course, does not mean that the court may not place offenders on probation, or make use of other state facilities and services in proper cases.”

Interestingly, Willis has not been overturned or distinguished, and the relevant North Carolina laws are essentially still in place.  If The Incredibles took place in a similar jurisdiction, a court could agree that attempted suicide was still theoretically a crime and so Mr. Incredible was justified in stopping it.

But what about something more straightforward: are there any jurisdictions left that still criminalize attempted suicide by statute?  As far we can tell, no U.S. state still has a statute criminalizing attempted suicide.  The Willis / La Fayette approach would seem to be the only way for it to remain a crime.

III. An Alternative Approach

Even if it isn’t a crime where The Incredibles takes place, that doesn’t mean Mr. Incredible couldn’t be justified in stopping the attempt.  As the Minnesota Supreme Court held in 1975: “There can be no doubt that a bona fide attempt to prevent a suicide is not a crime in any jurisdiction, even where it involves the detention, against her will, of the person planning to kill herself. Had defendant seized complainant as she was about to leap from a building, and had he kept her locked in a safe place until the authorities arrived, it is clear that a conviction for the crime of false imprisonment could not be sustained.”  State v. Hembd, 232 N.W.2d 872, 878 (Minn. 1975).  That case was decided in the criminal context, but a civil court could come to the same conclusion.

IV. Conclusion

Regardless of the law of the jurisdiction, Mr. Incredible probably could have beaten the case.  Would it have been enough to keep the supers from retiring?  Maybe, maybe not, but at least one of the sillier lawsuits in cinema history could have been thrown out.

Gotham City: Daydreams and Believers

This story was just a one-shot, written basically as a letter from the office receptionist, Stacy, to a friend on the West Coast. There isn’t a crime to be solved here as such, but it’s the most in-depth exploration of the relationship between Batman, the Bat-Signal, and the GCPD we’ve got on record. This implicates the state actor doctrine we’ve been talking about for a while and the discussion we started in our post about “In the Line of Duty”. But it adds two little details which complicate the analysis. Continue reading