Dollhouse: Haunted

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.

Abi writes:

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?

A. Necessity

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.

B. Duress

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.

III. Conclusion

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).

19 responses to “Dollhouse: Haunted

  1. Two questions, one with regard to Buffyverse vampires, the other Dollverse (?) dolls

    1. You mention -informed- consent right at the end there… Would that really apply to most vampires, even among those that consent at all? I mean, if you think of Spike, (and forgive me as it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but) I’m reasonably sure his impression when he consented was that he’d be stronger so people would stop pushing him around. Loss of his own will seemed rather lost in the fine print, and I think that pretty much applies with any voluntary turning I can remember from the series. Drusilla definitely didn’t consent at all… In fact, don’t I remember Angel saying, with regard to Dru, something about the purer the human, the more evil the vampire? So wouldn’t it suggest that many of the majorly evil old vampires were probably at some point, hundreds of years ago, innocent victims? Can the case be made for benefit of the doubt for such old vampires given that it can’t be proven one way or the other? And if you hold the sire responsible… Well, what about that vampire’s sire? And that vampire’s? And on back to the first vampire? And do we even know how the first vampire came to be? Okay, before I start getting existential, on to question 2.

    2. If the original personalities of dolls couldn’t be returned to them, what could be done with them? Could the court order them wiped and then involuntarily committed as a danger to themselves (since they wouldn’t be able to function in normal society in that state)? Could the court order the Dollhouse to construct a personality for them that approximates their real personality? Or a “generic” functional personality if not enough was known about their real personality? If family could be found, would they get a say in all this?

    • Yeah, I don’t really like the involuntary intoxication approach to vampires very much. It was pretty late when I wrote this post, and I should have mentioned that the bigger difference is that the human dies in order to create a vampire, whereas no one dies in order to become a doll. Thus, the human and the vampire are two different legal persons, whereas the original person and the doll are the same person. That argument works a lot a better, especially since one can’t really consent to one’s own death. I’ve updated the post to reflect that.

      I don’t know if the court could order them wiped and then committed. It would probably be simpler to just commit them “as is.” The court probably couldn’t order the Dollhouse to do anything because of the 13th Amendment, but it’s possible that a particularly screwed-up Active personality could be involuntarily changed, akin to the involuntary administration of anti-psychotic medication.

      As I understand it the family wouldn’t necessarily get a say, which is one of the reasons why involuntary commitment is so serious and why Due Process is so important in commitment cases.

      • The 13th ammendment prohibits involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime, but surely the Dollhouse would be up on some sort of charges once the details of dolls comes to light (which would really be the only way a court (or the general public for that matter) could look at a doll as anything other whatever the active personality). Basically looking at it as restitution of the victim of the Dollhouse’s crimes rather than anything to do with the doll’s criminality.

        If it’s deemed “okay” to just leave the current active personality intact, would there necessarily be a reason not to let them go, if not found guilty of a crime and the personality isn’t inherently dangerous? They are, by and large, quite functional, and aside from Mellie I don’t believe assassination triggers are standard or anything.

      • Basically looking at it as restitution of the victim of the Dollhouse’s crimes rather than anything to do with the doll’s criminality.

        All kinds of equipment and files could be collected as evidence, and Dollhouse employees (e.g. Topher) could be required to testify as to how everything works. But a court couldn’t force a person like Topher to actually work the machines.

        If it’s deemed “okay” to just leave the current active personality intact, would there necessarily be a reason not to let them go, if not found guilty of a crime and the personality isn’t inherently dangerous? They are, by and large, quite functional, and aside from Mellie I don’t believe assassination triggers are standard or anything.

        I think so, especially if there’s no way to restore the original personality.

  2. WRT Buffyverse vampires, as I think you mentioned in your other post, what most victims and/or voluntary converts don’t know is that “you,” the important part of you which makes you you and is referred to as the soul in the Buffyverse, leaves the physical body and goes on to its ultimate reward as a result of the conversion. Buffyverse vampires *are* Dolls, it’s just the programmer – i.e. the demon who animates a vampire’s body – rides around in the doll’s body, implementing the program on the fly. (And of course, the program can’t be changed.)

    While I’m wandering, did they ever have a situation on Buffy where the original soul haunted the vampire body? Ghosts, IIRC, are real in the Buffyverse, so unless there’s some specific rule against it related to the conversion process, I don’t see why that couldn’t happen and it would make an interesting dramatic point.

    • There were a few times when ghosts tried to take over bodies and in Angel they did have to deal with a necromancer but I don’t know if they had anything specifically like what you mentioned.

  3. Under what circumstances could a doll have or regain their ability to be considered legally competent? If a Doll has or develops free-will doesn’t he or she have the right to self determination?

    In the Dresden Files, the Corpsetaker magically switched bodies. Corpsetaker’s memories and soul were transferred to a young woman’s mind and the woman’s memories and soul were forced into the Corpsetaker’s current body. Corpsetaker then killed her old body (thus preventing any possibility of switching back).

    Captain Anastasia Luccio was Corpetaker’s next and last victim. In the book, Dead Beat, Luccio’s body was switch with the Corpetaker’s. The Corpetaker (and Luccio’s body) were then killed leaving Luccio trapped in a new body. The body’s original owner was another victim of Corpsetaker but her soul and memories cannot be put back.

    In the series, the person with Luccio’s soul is considered Luccio. Whether or not she is legally Luccio, the young woman, or a newly created third person is never addressed.

    Luccio (or the body she inhabits) seams rather like a doll but under the circumstances, shouldn’t she (who ever she is) be coincided a component adult?

    • Under what circumstances could a doll have or regain their ability to be considered legally competent? If a Doll has or develops free-will doesn’t he or she have the right to self determination?

      At a minimum the doll would have to have some kind of programming. The dolls’ default state is pretty much a textbook case of incompetence.

      Theoretically some of the active personalities are complete and normal enough that they could function in society (e.g. the one in this episode was just a regular person). The problem is that if we regard the doll to be the same legal person as the original—who was coerced or duped by the Dollhouse into being brainwashed—then the original person should be restored to their original state. That was also what the original person wanted, since that’s part of the deal with the Dollhouse: five years of work and then you get put back in your body.

      It’s hard to think of a real-world analogy, though.

      • TimothyAWiseman

        It has been a long time since I’ve seen Dollhouse, but as I recall the few times they went into the pre-mindwiping history of any doll they seemed to enter voluntarily and with reasonably full consent. Since there are people willing to enter prostitution or handle murder for hire (the most objectionable things shown), that fact does not seem at all unbelievable if you found people desperate enough and offered enough money at the end. Of course, some of the Doll’s assignments come with a relatively high degree of risk, but that also applies to people involved with illegal prostitution and murder-for-hire.

        I think a reasonable (thought certainly not perfect) anology is someone who joins a particularly brutal gang. It could be said that after joining everything is under duress since attempts to disobey or get out of that life may very well be met with death. But the joining itself was (at least in many cases) voluntary and with disclosure reasonable under the circumstances.

  4. If someone died and then (through vampirism, magic or whatever you like) returned to ‘life’ would they be able to declare that their will was not yet applicable?

    • Well, strictly speaking, Buffyverse vampirism doesn’t bring the person back to life. Not only is the mind different, but legally speaking the person is dead.

      In the case of the doll in this episode, it’s also not the same person. The scan was three weeks old, the process doesn’t perfectly replicate a person’s mind, and the new, younger body is going to involve different hormones and other factors affecting decision-making. So it’s highly questionable whether a decision made by the imprint should be legally effective, which is why I concluded that the new wills in the episode were likely fraudulent.

      If the resurrection was perfect (i.e. it simply restores the body to normal life, permanently), then the person wouldn’t be dead, and we’d have the issue discussed in this post.

      Any less-than-perfect method of resurrection is going to have problems, not least of which is the question of whether the person really would have made the same decision had they not died in the first place.

      There are also policy reasons not to allow someone to change their will posthumously: it disrupts the settled expectations of the people involved, and it prevents settled expectations from being formed in the first place, since no one knows if the testator is going to show up and change things around.

  5. It seems to be assumed that Mellie can’t give consent by virtue of her personality being an artificial construct, but regardless of how she came to me, for all intents and purposes, isn’t she human and capable of giving consent? The original personality might disagree, but in spite of being slapped together by science, the active’s personality seems human enough that it could be considered a “person.”

    • It’s a complicated question. Consider this hypothetical: Person A signs up for the Dollhouse with the intention, clearly stating in writing, to have their original personality restored in five years. As a doll, A is imprinted with numerous personalities, all of which are carefully crafted to be willing to be erased given the right code phrase (“It’s time for your treatment.”). Now, suppose one of the personalities is programmed without that code phrase. Naturally, it doesn’t want to be erased. Should that refusal to grant consent override the clearly stated wish of the original personality?

      In general the law would say that it should. Consent can be withdrawn at any time, and this is a pretty important principle. But, the desire to resist erasure was also programmed by the Dollhouse, just like every other aspect of the doll’s personality. So, arguably the Dollhouse has interfered with the person’s desire to have their personality restored. Why, then, should we privilege the imprint over the original personality?

      • Melanie Koleini

        But what if the desire to resist erasure was not programed but evolved through the doll’s experiences?

        One of the reasons consent can be withdrawn is the fact that new information can lead people to change their minds. What if the doll doesn’t what to be erased because he learned something that he feels should be remembered? Who is to say the original personality wouldn’t agree?

        The closest real world analogy I can think of is someone who is mentally ill refusing treatment. In that case, the court either appoints someone to act as a guardian and make treatment decisions or allows the ill person to refuse treatment.

      • I’m not talking about the doll’s ultimate rights (that’s a big question!). I’m referring to “Mellie” actually being the one in the driver’s seat at the time she had sex with Ballard. Even though a good case can be made that she doesn’t ultimately own that body, at the time of the act she was in control and gave consent.

        So not rape…I think.

      • Melanie Koleini

        The issue comes down to Mellie’s competence to consent to anything. If Mellie doesn’t have the right to refuse medical treatment (i.e. the wiping of her personality), does she have the legal right to consent to anything? I’m not a lawyer but I actually agree that Mellie probably does have the ability to consent to some things. The doll Mellie inhabits presumably volunteered for the procedure. Was the agreement legal? Almost certainly not. But she did volunteer to let her body be used. Wouldn’t this make the doll like someone who is VOLUNTARY intoxicated? While most rapes due involved alcohol, isn’t it legal to have sex when drunk?

      • Not that familiar with the series, but it seems like the “original” personality would have had to give prior consent for all sorts of things before agreeing to this procedure. She knows that the body is going to be doing *something*, even if she isn’t certain what those things are going to be ahead of time – and I would expect sex to be one of the first things to pop into her mind, even if she is told all sorts of other things as well. If the “original” owner gives consent, either explicitly in writing or implicitly by undergoing the procedure, that the temporary personalities are going to use her body for any number of activities, and the temporary personality also gives consent to one of those activities, then rape seems to be avoided either way.

  6. Tales of the Boojum

    Escape Pod ran a story in a similar vein a couple of weeks ago called “The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived” by Keffy R.M. Kehrli. In it, there’s an error while uploading a dead girl’s memories and personality into a clone body. When she comes to, she’s essentially a new person with no memory of having been the original girl or any connection to her. As far as she’s concerned, that was some other person. The distraught family demands that the cloning company fix the error and it turns out the company is able to do that. Naturally, the girl doesn’t want to be overwritten with a different personality, but doesn’t seem to have any say in the matter and she’s a minor and her parents have consented to the procedure. So that’s a whole other can of worms. It’s at

  7. Terry Washington

    The whole issue is whether a “transformed person” be they doll or vampire can be said to be a “person” in the eyes of the law( pace 1857 Dred Scott US Supreme Court ruling)

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