The Rocketeer is the 1980s Dave Stevens eight issue comic book that was turned into the 1991 Walt Disney movie. The premise should be well-known at this point: a late 1930s stunt pilot stumbles upon a prototype jetpack. Hijinks ensue. This is, of course, not to be confused with racketeering, which is another thing entirely. But we know that racketeering is illegal. Is “rocketeering”?
It turns out that the plot of the comic book and the movie diverge widely, so this time we’re going to be talking about the comic book. Specifically, we’re going to take a look at two issues, one of which we’ve touched on before: air traffic control and receiving stolen property.
I. Air Traffic Control
Perhaps the most obvious legal issue here is the fact that the Rocketeer is using an experimental flying machine, and flying machines of all sorts are subject to the regulative authority of the Federal Aviation Administration. We talked about this issue in a two post series back in December 2010. In that post we had a discussion about whether something like a jet pack would be considered an “experimental” device and thus subject to lighter regulation. In this case, we can categorically say that the Rocketeer’s jet pack would not fall into this FAA category. Why? Because the FAA didn’t exist until 1958.
This is not to say that there was no federal regulation of US airspace before then. The Air Commerce Act (May 20, 1926, ch. 344, 44 Stat. 568) was enacted over a decade before the events in the story, set in 1938. The ACA of 1926 empowered the Department of Commerce to regulate US airspace and air transportation generally, but it took quite a few decades before our current system would emerge. Indeed, air traffic control didn’t even exist as late as the mid 1930s, and when the Bureau of Air Commerce—the renamed Aeronautics Branch, still part of Commerce—took over air traffic control operations in 1936, there were only three ATC operations in the country, presumably near major airports. Remember, radar was still in the process of being invented. The Civil Aeronautics Act was passed in 1938—the year of the story—which further increased the government’s regulatory authority. But the full panoply of FAA regulations would not really come about for decades. So while the Rocketeer might have been violating a few aviation regulations, one gets the impression that the aviation regulatory regime was still in its infancy, and there was a lot of unregulated activity going on. As an exhaustive accounting of the state of such regulation in the late 1930s is more the subject for a scholarly article than a blog post, we’ll leave it at that.
II. Receiving Stolen Property
The other issue is the legal status of Secord’s possession of the jet pack. The question is whether there could be any additional offenses beyond the old common law receiving stolen property, which the story recognizes as being applicable. Here we run into some of the same issues as with aviation regulations: the law in 1938 was significantly different, and less extensive, than it is today. What is currently the foundation of federal criminal law and procedure, Pub. L. No. 80-775, 62 Stat. 683 was only passed in 1948. Legal research websites are very careful to show only the latest, amended versions of laws currently in force, so laying hands on a copy of the US Code current through 1938 is kind of difficult. Luckily, we don’t have to go quite that far.
It’s fairly safe to assume that some version of 18 U.S.C. § 641, which criminalizes receiving stolen property belonging to the federal government, existed in 1938. But 18 U.S.C. § 793 on “gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information”? Which makes it a crime to be in the unauthorized possession of any “instrument” “relating to the national defense” and “willfully retains it”? Turns out that that is merely a recodification of a provision which is part of the Espionage Act of 1917, Pub.L. 65-24, 40 Stat. 217. So because Secord knows that the jet pack “relates to national defense,” knows he isn’t supposed to have it, and doesn’t surrender it to government officials—either on his own or when asked—he’s in violation of the Espionage Act. That’s good for a $10,000 fine and two years in the federal pen. And since the two crimes each have an element lacking in the other, neither is a “lesser included offense,” which means Secord could do the full time for both offenses. Now we’re talking a $10,000 fine, plus the value of the jet pack (which may be a lot higher than that), plus three years in prison.
And that’s just for those two. A US Attorney in the late 1930s would undoubtedly have been able to come up with a few more, just for good measure, to say nothing of whatever state laws Secord may have broken.
So the most significant legal issue in the Rocketeer isn’t actually one of substantive law, but of legal research: it’s very, very important to know when something occurred, because the law changes, and usually not retroactively. Sometimes a little, e.g., many of the same criminal offenses in play today were present in some form in 1938. Sometimes a lot, e.g., even the precursors to modern FAA regulations didn’t exist in 1925. Sometimes this change is slow, e.g., the espionage offense discussed here uses the same language as was in force in 1917, and sometimes rapidly, e.g., an entirely new area of federal regulation springing into existence overnight in 1926. But a lawyer—or citizen!—that assumes that they know what the law is because they know what the law was may be in for a nasty surprise.
That’s about it for the comic book of The Rocketeer. We’ll be back for the movie in a bit!