The movie Chronicle came out last week, and it’s pretty good (the Blu-ray version comes out on May 15, 2012).  The basic plot is that three teenage boys develop powerful telekinetic abilities, resulting in, well, as the AV Club put it, “This is why teenagers cannot have nice powers.”  Obviously a lot of what goes on in the film is plainly illegal, especially toward the end, but there are some more subtle and interesting legal issues to discuss.  Spoilers ahead!

(Note: the movie appears to take place in Washington state, so we’ll use Washington state law where possible.)

I. Filming and Privacy Laws

Chronicle is a “found footage” film: everything that occurs onscreen is either ostensibly filmed by one of the characters or by some other “real” camera (e.g. a security camera or news footage).  As a result, the characters are constantly filming themselves and other people, both in public and in private.  For the most part any privacy issues with this are ignored, although one character, who runs a video blog, does ask permission on one occasion.  So what’s the deal here?

As luck would have it, Washington has adopted the four common law privacy torts of intrusion, disclosure, false light, and appropriation, which we discussed in an earlier series on superheroes and privacy law.  Mark v. Seattle Times, 96 Wash.2d 473, 497 (1981) (en banc).  As the Washington Supreme Court held in Mark, photography in a public place is generally not enough to constitute intrusion:

It is clear also that the thing into which there is intrusion or prying must be, and be entitled to be, private…. On the public street, or in any other public place, the plaintiff has no legal right to be alone; and it is no invasion of his privacy to do no more than follow him about and watch him there. Neither is it such an invasion to take his photograph in such a place, since this amounts to nothing more than making a record, not differing essentially from a full written description, of a public sight which anyone would be free to see.

Mark, 96 Wash.2d at 497 (quoting W. Prosser, Torts 808-09 (4th ed. 1971)).  So right off the bat we can disregard most of the filming, since it happens in public places.  But there are a couple of non-public examples that are worth discussing in detail.

The first is the one that the film itself draws attention to: the video blogger (Casey) asking for permission to film a friend (Matt) who comes to her house.  A person’s house is not a public place, and filming in someone’s house without consent or via deception can be an intrusion into their privacy.  See, e.g., Dietemann v. TIME, Inc., 449 F.2d 245 (9th Cir. 1971).  But what about filming a guest standing in the doorway?  In that case we fall back on the definition of intrusion:

One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

Mark, 96 Wash.2d at 497 (quoting the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652B (1977)).  From the definition of intrusion we can see that it would really depend on the nature of the intrusion.  In the film Matt and Casey sort-of discussed their relationship history, but nothing deeply personal or embarrassing was revealed.  Nonetheless, Casey was right to ask for permission, just in case.  Consent is a defense to intrusion, and since the conversation might have involved Matt’s “private affairs or concerns,” getting consent in advance was a good idea.

The other interesting case was Michael’s attempt to catch Andrew’s first intimate experience with a girl (Monica) on film.  This happens at a party at another person’s house, but behind closed doors.  This would undoubtedly count as an intrusion into both Andrew and Monica’s privacy.  (For those who have seen the movie: what was actually filmed is likewise an intrusion, as reflected in Andrew’s response).

II. Flying without a Permit

As we’ve discussed previously, superheroes who use some kind of aircraft or other device to fly are subject to federal regulations, including aircraft registration.  But superheroes who can fly under their own power, such as the characters in Chronicle, aren’t.  This is because the regulations only apply to “aircraft,” which are defined in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air.” (emphasis added).  So the protagonists could legally fly all over the United States with some exceptions (e.g. flying low enough would probably subject them to trespassing laws).  Traveling to other countries (e.g. Tibet), however, is a different matter.

III. Property Owner Liability

The protagonists receive their powers after finding a large, mysterious glowing rock in a cave near a party at an abandoned building.  Could the property owner possibly be liable for anything that happened, or could he or she have been liable if, instead of giving them superpowers, the rock had harmed them?

The answer is “probably not.”  “In Washington, the possessor of land has a duty of care to persons on their property based on the entrant’s common law status as an  inviteelicensee, or trespasser.” Smith v. Stockdale, 2012 WL 385389 at 6 (Ct. App. Wash. 2012) ; Tincani v. Inland Empire Zoological Soc., 124 Wash.2d 121 (1994) (en banc).  “The general rule is that a landowner owes no duty to a trespasser, except to refrain from causing willful or wanton injury to him.”  Degel v. Majestic Mobile Manor, Inc., 129 Wash.2d 43, 52 (1996) (en banc).  There is an exception for “attractive nuisances” that cause injury to children, but the boys were seniors in high school, and the attractive nuisance doctrine typically tops out at age 12 or 14.  Unless the property owner set up the cave and rock as some kind of trap, he or she probably isn’t liable for anything that happened.


19 responses to “Chronicle

    • True, but it appears that in Washington, there does not appear to be a higher standard for legally filming police than any other citizen.

      • Eh, if you film a private citizen, they can sue you if you publish it. In several states, filming a policeman can get years of jail. And honestly, I think there should be a lower (higher?) standard when it comes to filming police because otherwise you get a chilling effect that suddenly they’re the only people allowed to have a recording as to what went down (most police cruisers being fitted with a video camera constantly recording). Who watches the watchmen? Actually, come to think of it, why do the police get to film everything without having to ask for disclaimers?

  1. Hang on a minute, you didn’t write a conclusion summing up the legal issues in Chronicle!

  2. Cops and security personnel are notorious for making up their own rules. See any of the “photographers’ rights” blogs. Nowadays, they frequently invoke “terrorism” as an excuse, or claim that filming is “wiretapping”.

    • There’s something I’ve heard of often in cases about recording police officers. The police officer will often confiscate the camera and destroy the footage. I find this mystifying. If the officer truly believes it to be a crime, then this would be destroying the evidence of a crime. If they do not believe it is a crime, this is an officer destroying private property. Your earlier posts suggest that it would be difficult to sue a police department for this kind of action. However, this looks to be a no-win situation from a PR point of view if the photographer made a public issue of it. The police department would at minimum look incompetent.

  3. You did not mention the legal ramifications of accidentally causing a vehicle to crash through a guardrail, causing harm government property, personal property, as well as causing injury to the driver. The fact that they tried to rectify the accident by getting help is something that should be added in there as well. Also, what about his destroying the hospital room after suddenly being woken from a coma by an abusive and violent father? Is he liable for this, or is the law about waking up a person and them not being liable for killing you applicable in this instant? Just food for thought, and blogging, lol.

    • Also, if the case were taken to a court of law, would Andrew Detmer be held accountable for the death of Steve Montgomery, and would it be labeled as wrongful death? Also, would Matt Garetty be charged with murder, or the protection of innocent civilians/the police force present at the time of Andrew Detmer’s psychological breakdown?

      • The way I saw it, Steve died of a random lightning strike brought about by his own decision to go flying in a storm. One could also interpret the scene as showing that Andrew caused the lightning strike, but that doesn’t seem to fit with their other telekinetic powers.

        I think Matt’s actions at the end were pretty well all in self-defense or in defense of others.

    • Andrew is probably liable for what happened. He intentionally moved the vehicle, and he was not privileged to use force against the vehicle under the circumstances (e.g. he could not have lawfully thrown something at the vehicle). At the very least this is an assault. “Washington recognizes three definitions of assault: (1) an attempt, with unlawful force, to inflict bodily injury upon another; (2) an unlawful touching with criminal intent; and (3) putting another in apprehension of harm whether or not the actor intends to inflict or is incapable of inflicting that harm.” Clark v. Baines, 84 P.3d 245, 247 n. 3 (Wash. 2004) (en banc). If the victim died, Andrew would be guilty of second degree manslaughter (with criminal negligence, causing the death of another person). If the victim survived then Andrew would probably be guilty of second degree assault (i.e. an intentional assault that recklessly inflicts substantial bodily harm).

  4. In the brawl at the end of the movie, Matt appears to throw cars at Andrew. It seems like legitimate self defense, but what about the owners of the cars? Does Matt’s right of self defense outweigh the car owner’s property claim? Does that change if Matt is defending civilians, and quite possibly the owners of these cars?

    And, of course, we are shown that bus Andrew throws is still occupied. If Matt throws an occupied car at Andrew (presumably by mistake), is he liable for any deaths or injuries?

    • That’s a tricky one. At a minimum Matt probably has a defense of private necessity (for the tort of trespass to property) and a defense of necessity (for the similar crime). Unfortunately, private necessity would still leave him liable for the damage to the cars.

      On the other hand, the danger posed by Andrew is so serious that Matt may be able to invoke public necessity. It would certainly seem to rise to the level of “public disaster.” In that case he might not be liable for the damage.

      As for throwing an occupied car: it depends on whether it was negligent, which would basically turn on whether an ordinary person would have thought the car was unoccupied or, alternatively, whether an ordinary person would have thought it was reasonable to throw the car without checking first, under the circumstances.

  5. I think that if Matt were put on trial for his actions, his defense attorney could argue that it couldn’t actually be proven that Matt was the party responsible for the inexplicable and apparently spontaneous movement of certain objects. There’s video evidence showing that he looked at those objects and that they subsequently moved, and his words and comportment suggest that he believed himself to be responsible for their movement. But that alone doesn’t prove that he actually caused it. If telekinetic powers are something totally new to science, if there’s no detectable energy or other mechanism underlying it, there might be no way to meet a legal standard of proof for the claim that he actually can cause objects to move without touching them, at least not without his cooperation — and the state couldn’t compel such cooperation if he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.

    • That’s up to a jury. If a jury saw the entire video record shown in the movie, I would think they would conclude the teenagers are causing the motion. The jury doesn’t need to understand how it works, but they don’t need to understand how a car works either.

      • But a car is something whose existence nobody disputes. If the defense attorney got expert witnesses to argue that there was no basis for believing telekinesis was possible, or even that it wasn’t possible according to the best scientific consensus, then that could create reasonable doubt. Conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you can’t even prove that telekinesis exists, you can’t prove conclusively that Matt did what it looked like he was doing.

        Besides, juries don’t have free rein to rule however they feel like. They’re obligated to rule based on the parameters of the relevant laws and on all the evidence and testimony presented. They wouldn’t just base their conclusion on one piece of video, they’d base it on the entire legal and evidentiary context in which that video existed. And a good defense attorney could surely create some reasonable doubt about the reality of a premise as incredible as the one the prosecution would be arguing for. The legal deck is always going to be stacked against whichever side is proposing the existence of a totally unprecedented and unproven phenomenon.

      • If either of the two others were around, they could conceivably prove that telekinesis exists beyond a reasonable doubt.

  6. “If either of the two others were around, they could conceivably prove that telekinesis exists beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Well, they aren’t around. The only one who could actually demonstrate it is Matt, and I already pointed out his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

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