We’ve written generally about the TV series Dollhouse before, but this is our first look at the legal issues raised by a particular episode from season one. The show was recent enough that we’ll give a spoiler warning.
This episode’s “A-plot” is perhaps interesting legally, featuring as it does a murder victim’s brain pattern in the body of a doll investigating her death, and doing things like writing out new wills.
This is not the thing that caught my attention, though. In the episode, Agent Ballard has sex with ‘Mellie’ (November), having found out in the previous episode that she is an Active who has been sent to spy on her. If we treat dolls equivalently to people who have been involuntary intoxicated (as your post did in terms of liability for actions committed by dolls), it follows that they cannot give consent to certain actions, which leads to an unfortunate implication. Ballard’s life is in danger, though, and he could have blown his cover if he had refused, so perhaps he has a defence of duress?
As suggested, there are two issues here: an imprinted doll rewriting a will after death and issues of consent. Rather than re-cap the episode, we’ll refer you to the Dollhouse wiki’s synopsis.
I. Holographic Wills, Slayer Statutes, and Community Property
As luck would have it, we can sidestep the question of the legality of the imprint’s actions almost completely because it turns out that the law already provides for most of what the imprint was trying to accomplish by rewriting her will. Which is a good thing because it was almost certainly fraudulent.* But notably, at least one aspect of the new wills was legitimate.
* Why care about the fraudulent nature of the will if the vast majority don’t even know the Dollhouse exists, much less suspect what really happened? One answer is that the fraud could be proven with forensics: if Margaret really wrote the will and letters, her fingerprints should be all over them. Instead, her fingerprints won’t be but another, unknown person’s will. That’s extremely suspicious and quite possibly enough to prove a forgery. Of course, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who would care to contest the will, but it’s at least a possibility.
A. Holographic Wills
Normally a will isn’t valid unless certain formalities are met. These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but typically a certain number of disinterested witnesses (i.e. people who aren’t inheriting anything) must sign the will along with the testator (i.e. the person making the will). Some jurisdictions, however, recognize holographic wills. It sounds like they should be some kind of 3D message from beyond the grave, but sadly they’re just handwritten by the testator and do not require any witnesses or other formal requirements. California, where the episode appears to take place, recognizes holographic wills. Cal. Prob. Code § 6111. So assuming no one discovered the unusual circumstances under which the replacement wills (or, possibly, codicils) were created, they wouldn’t be obviously invalid. If the episode had taken place in, say, Oregon or Washington, then the result might be different.
B. Slayer Statutes
One of the imprint’s major goals was to discover who killed her—and then to disinherit that person. (Un)fortunately, this is something that happens often enough that the law already takes it into account. Most jurisdictions have enacted a “slayer statute” that prevents a murderer from inheriting from his or her victim. California’s slayer statute is Cal. Prob. Code § 250. So it would have been sufficient for the imprint to leave behind enough evidence to prove that she was murdered. The original will would have been interpreted as though the murderer (one of the children) had predeceased the mother. The will was apparently written using proportional shares (e.g. 1/3rd to each of the two children and the brother), so the daughter and brother would each take 1/2. That still leaves the husband with a bunch of horses he can’t afford and doesn’t want, though, since he was not given a share of the entire estate.
C. Community Property
California is one of a few U.S. states that take the community property approach to marital property. In a nutshell, this means that—with a handful of exceptions—property acquired by either spouse during the marriage is jointly owned by the spouses. This means that after a spouse dies, the surviving spouse has a right to half of the community property. In this case the second husband and wife hadn’t been married for very long, but presumably he’d be left with more than just the horses.
Of course, wealthy people in community property states often go to great lengths to avoid this, either with a prenuptial agreement or a marital agreement. The episode doesn’t say whether there was such an agreement, but it’s likely there would have been one, given the wealth imbalance between the spouses. That would explain why the husband ended up with what little he did.
II. Dolls and Consent
In one of the sub-plots of the episode, Agent Ballard has sex with the woman he knows as Mellie, who is actually a doll code-named November. At this point, Ballard knows that Mellie is a doll, but he goes through with it in order to keep his knowledge a secret from the Dollhouse, which is using Mellie to spy on him. The problem is that, under the involuntary intoxication theory, dolls—even imprinted dolls—are arguably incapable of consenting to sex, which would make what happened rape. Could Ballard possibly have a defense?
In California, “The necessity defense is very limited and depends on the lack of a legal alternative to committing the crime. It excuses criminal conduct if it is justified by a need to avoid an imminent peril and there is no time to resort to the legal authorities or such resort would be futile.” People v. Verlinde, 100 Cal.App.4th 1146, 1164 (2002) (quoting People v. Beach, 194 Cal.App.3d 955, 971 (1987)). In this case, Ballard is not in imminent peril, and there was a legal alternative to committing the crime (e.g. abandoning his investigation of the Dollhouse). Ballard’s investigation wasn’t even sanctioned by the FBI, so he can’t invoke that it was necessary in order to maintain an undercover investigation.
Ballard fares no better with a defense of duress. In California, duress applies if the criminal act was was made “under threats or menaces sufficient to show that [the defendant] had reasonable cause to and did believe their lives would be endangered if they refused.” Cal. Penal Code § 26. Furthermore, “the danger must not be one of future violence, but of present and immediate violence at the time of the commission of the forbidden act.” People v. Lo Cicero, 71 Cal.2d 1186, 1191 (1969) (en banc). So while Ballard knew that refusing to have sex with Mellie might endanger him, the threat was one of future violence. The result might have been different if Ballard knew about Mellie’s assassin-mode trigger phrase and that the Dollhouse would use it if Ballard did anything suspicious.
One of the major goals of probate law is to try to accommodate most people’s wishes most of the time. The Dollhouse connection makes this case a little weird, but the important facts are common enough that the law would actually do a pretty good job of resolving the situation. Similarly, the way the law would treat Ballard fits pretty well with Ballard’s own reaction to what happened.
IV. A Side-note about Vampires
Our regular readers may be wondering: how does this view square with the post on Buffyverse vampires? In many ways, vampires and dolls are similar: both go through a significant change in personality but retain the same body. So why are vampires generally criminally liable for their acts whereas dolls generally aren’t? The distinction seems to be that vampires are typically sired voluntarily whereas it’s highly questionable whether the people who become dolls did so with fully informed consent, and in any case once they become a doll they are in no state to resist.
So what about vampires who are sired involuntarily, which, while uncommon, apparently do exist in the Buffyverse? In that case, it may make sense to hold the sire liable, similar to holding the Dollhouse liable for crimes committed by actives. Of course, the vampire may still be indefinitely involuntarily committed because of the danger he or she represents to others, which is practically the same as imprisonment.
Update / Mini-retcon: Another difference between vampires and dolls is that a human dies in order for a vampire to be born. Thus, the human and vampire are two different people, legally-speaking, whereas creating a doll doesn’t kill the person. This is a more satisfying argument than claiming that a human consents to becoming a vampire with all that entails, since one cannot consent to one’s own death or even serious injury (outside of physician-assisted suicide in the handful of jurisdictions that allow it).