Earlier this month, Total Recall hit theaters. This isn’t exactly a remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but instead more of a parallel adaptation of “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” a 1966 Philip K. Dick short story. It’s a bad movie on multiple levels. For one thing, somebody needs to revoke the lens flare privileges of whoever thought sticking the effect in 50% of the shots in the movie was anything remotely like a good idea. Also, if you’re going to cast two actresses who look somewhat alike, in the same movie, and have them get in a fight, at least have the decency to have one of them dye her hair or something so the audience can tell who the devil is winning.
The premise is basically ridiculous. Both movies and the short story have two primary settings. The story and first movie have those settings be Earth and Mars. But this movie? England and Australia, connected by “The Fall,” a patently impossible tunnel through the center of the earth which is used as a daily commute between the “United Federation of Britain” and “The Colony.” It apparently takes seventeen minutes to travel approximately 8,450 km, about 30,000 km/hour. Surprisingly enough, this is only about twice as fast as physics suggests should be the case, but really, having a human colony on Mars seems a lot more plausible. Compared to moving hundreds of megatons of rock and dealing with the immense pressures near the Earth’s core, going to Mars seems downright trivial.
The other major feature of the movie is common to all three works, i.e., “Rekall,” pronounced “recall.” It’s a company that’s perfected the process of both reading and writing memories into the human brain. They bill themselves as a vacation or adventure company. Don’t have the money to do whatever? Want to do something squicky? For a modest fee, you can get those memories in a matter of minutes. The technology also extends to erasing and replacing existing memories. This raises two issues, both of which we’ve talked about before: amnesia and mind reading.
We actually looked at this in the abstract last year, when we concluded that in most cases, amnesia is not a bar to prosecution. The argument is that a person who has no memories of the charged offense can’t offer assistance to his lawyer. Unfortunately, the courts have pretty much roundly rejected this idea (with the possible exception of the D.C. Circuit). Amnesia can be considered in competency hearings, but it’s rarely dispositive and does not act as an automatic bar to prosecution.
The justification for the rule is largely practical. If the head trauma is really bad, the defendant will probably be incompetent for other reasons, independent of amnesia. If you’re catatonic, a lack of memories is the least of your problems. Further, most of the time when this comes up in real cases, the defendant is strongly suspected to be faking and/or on drugs. Amnesia isn’t actually all that common absent head trauma or drugs. The former is pretty obvious to spot, and the courts strongly disapprove of letting voluntary use of drugs or alcohol keep someone from justice. And even if a person has no specific memories of the crime in question, odds are really good that they will still be able to assist their lawyer. They’ll know who their family and friends are, so they can probably get a pretty good idea of where they’ve been. They’ll still be able to weigh the objective evidence, e.g., forensic and surveillance evidence. Etc.
But what about if one’s memories aren’t just missing, but have been completely replaced? What if Douglas Quaid, apparently a factory worker, is actually an intercontinental (or interplanetary) intelligence operative? That might be a different situation. Here, the accused probably would have no way of reconstructing their whereabouts. They’d simply have no idea what was going on. And in the presence of technology which makes that kind of thing plausible, a court might take that into account. Still, the court also takes into account the strength of the government’s case. If they’ve got the defendant dead to rights, an amnesiac but otherwise mentally competent defendant would probably be found competent (and guilty).
II. Mind Reading
The technology also apparently permits fairly accurate mind reading, to the point that messages can be planted in someone’s brain to be delivered to someone who reads said brain later on. This is Johnny Mnemonic territory. But what about the use of this technology in the case of a defendant that’s pleading amnesia? Might a court be able to order the use of the technology to determine if the defendant is telling the truth?
This is a closer call. On one hand, the Fifth Amendment does create a right against self-incrimination. We’ve discussed this previously and came to the conclusion that telepathy and mind-reading technology can’t be used to get evidence from a criminal defendant’s mind against their will at trial. But on the other hand, a court can order the psychiatric evaluation of a criminal defendant. Indeed, a defendant found incompetent can be held indefinitely and subjected to involuntary psychiatric treatment, including forcible medication. That’s exactly what happened to Jared Lougnher, the shooter in the 2011 Tucson shooting.
So could a court order the use of mind-reading technology for the limited purpose of determining competency? Probably. But statements given during a psychiatric evaluation to determine competency may not be used for any other purpose unless the defendant consents (i.e. is properly warned first) or the defense brings it up at the trial. Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454 (1981). As the Eighth Circuit explained in Wise v. Bowersox, 136 F.3d 1197, 1205 (1998):
No violation of the privilege against self-incrimination arises from a trial court’s ordering a defendant to undergo a psychological examination if the information gained in that examination is used solely to determine whether the defendant is competent to stand trial and not to show that the defendant is guilty or that he deserves a particular sentence.
Even without mind-reading technology, this is something to keep in mind. If a defendant wishes to assert any kind of psychiatric problem as a defense or delaying tactic, the courts and prosecution have pretty broad-ranging powers to investigate that assertion. And, as also explained in Wise, refusal to cooperate may result in an adverse inference (i.e. an assumption that the defendant must be faking it), so there’s not a lot of point to it.
Really, there’s not much to be said in favor of the movie. The movie itself doesn’t really involve any particularly interesting legal concepts. Its take on mind-reading technologies has interesting implications, but none of them are really worked out on screen. Given the complete implausibility of the rest of the movie (A society that can build a tunnel through the Earth’s core can’t figure out how to clean up the landscape after a chemical weapons release? Really?), this one’s best skipped.