Batman: Dark Victory is the 1999-2000 fourteen-issue limited series which picks up where Batman: The Long Halloween left off, which is in turn a continuation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story. It deals with the aftermath of the Holiday murders. Specifically, some of the legal aftermath of the Holiday murders. We’re going to take a look at one of the major legal plot points here—spoilers within, regarding both The Long Halloween and Dark Victory—and one of the tangential issues that comes up in that setting. Specifically, we’re going to look at allegations of the violation of the civil rights of a criminal defendant and potential remedies for such violations.
The new District Attorney, Janice Porter, says that she’s going to reopen the Holiday file. Alberto Falcone, son of the crime lord Carmine Falcone, was arrested, tried, and convicted for the Holiday killings. But during the arrest, Batman severely beats him, to the point that his right hand becomes essentially useless, permanently. Porter suggests that this is a violation of Falcone’s civil rights.
She’s almost certainly correct. The Supreme Court discussed excessive force by police officers in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). It held that the determination as to whether an officer’s use of force is “reasonable” is a Fourth Amendment question—not a Fourteenth or Eighth Amendment one, as had been suggested—and that the analysis is objective. First of all, for us even to get to this question, there has to have been some kind of state action. There are two possible routes here. One could argue that Batman was a state actor. He was working very closely with Commissioner Gordon at the time, so this is plausible. One could also argue that Gordon standing by and letting Batman hand out the beating amounts to tacit police approval of Batman’s actions, making that a state action regardless of any prior relationship.
Assuming state action and given the severity of the beating, saying that Falcone’s civil rights have been violated seems patently obvious. But what happens next is… not.
So Falcone’s civil rights have been violated. In real life, most of the time what happens in these cases is that the criminal defendant gets to sue for damages. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 contains a provision, now codified as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a private cause of action for violations of one’s civil rights by state or local officials. This means a suit against both the officials and potentially also the state or local government. Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Notably, the suit can be both for damages and for an injunction designed to prevent future harm of the same type. One wonders whether Falcone could have sued to prevent the Gotham City Police Department from working with Batman in the future.
But damages and possibly an injunction to prevent future harm are pretty much it. Unless the beating lead to the discovery of evidence which was critical in procuring the conviction (e.g. a forced confession), the conviction itself will stand. And in the absence of any change about the defendant’s guilt, any modification or reduction in a convict’s sentence is unlikely. Or rather not just unlikely, but pretty much unheard of. In the story, Porter reopens the Holiday file and somehow gets a Gotham City judge to modify Falcone’s sentence from incarceration in Arkham Asylum to house arrest in the custody of his brother. In real life, it’s difficult to see how something like this might work. Falcone is guilty. There were no irregularities with his prosecution. He got the snot beat out of him during his arrest, but as far as criminal procedure goes, there isn’t anything all that interesting going on.
So this part of the story just doesn’t work. DAs rarely reopen cases, and usually only when there’s new evidence suggesting the defendant’s innocence. But we’re not sure there’s even a mechanism whereby a DA could seek a reduction in a convict’s sentence just because he was maltreated prior to prosecution. If the prosecution wants a lighter sentence, they can ask for that during sentencing. But later prosecutors don’t get to go back and muck about with prior prosecutors’ convictions. It is possible that a prosecutor could request that the governor commute the prisoner’s sentence, but there’s no sign of that here.
As an aside, the judge, Judge Harkness of Gotham City, says that if there is any funny business with Alberto Falcone after he is released to house arrest that “I will make it my personal business to see that immigration takes another look at you, sir,” meaning Mario Falcone, who is trying to take his family legitimate. Are there any teeth to this threat?
One is reminded of the ongoing controversy in Arizona and elsewhere about state efforts to get involved in immigration activities. The federal government is, to put it mildly, not amused. The Supreme Court recently struck down parts of Arizona’s SB 1070 law as unconstitutional encroachments on an area of law reserved for Congress. The outcome, while disappointing to some, wasn’t all that surprising to anyone, as immigration is an explicitly federal subject under Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 4.
But that isn’t really what’s going on here. This isn’t an example of a state government making explicit and systematic moves to affect immigration policy. Rather, it’s an example of a state official saying he’s going to use what influence is his to wield to affect the outcome of a particular case for what are arguably legitimate reasons. If a state court judge in a state and community not really known for its immigration problems were to call up his local U.S. Attorney or regional ICE office, he might well be able to get some attention. Not as a matter of law, mind you, but as the sort of consideration that governmental agencies frequently show each other. So while the judge doesn’t have the authority to deport Mario, the story doesn’t suggest that he does, merely that he might be able to make a few phone calls. And he just might.
Dark Victory is absolutely right that Alberto Falcone’s civil rights have been violated. But how that’s supposed to add up to him being released from Arkham Asylum—where he was sent after a successful insanity plea—into his family’s custody is far from clear. And Judge Harkness’ little threat to Mario, while not necessarily describing a formal legal process, may actually have teeth. Informal teeth, but not necessarily any less real.