Hancock and Defense of Others

Today we have a follow up to our post about the movie Hancock.  (Moderate spoilers below!)

In one scene, Hancock foils a bank robbery.  The lead robber was holding a dead man’s switch that would set off explosives, killing bystanders, so naturally Hancock solved the problem by amputating the robber’s hand.  After our review, Heiki watched the film and wrote in with a question about that scene:

How do the facts of Hancock being a state actor (he was called in by the police), his ability to retreat, and his seeming ability to simply move so fast that the robber would not be able to act and being able to squeeze his hand shut without amputating it bear on the legality of the amputation manoeuvre?

As Heiki indicates, there are a few different issues here, but we’re going to focus on whether the amputation was possibly legal under the circumstances.  Hancock is set in Los Angeles, so we can refer to California law.

I. Defense of Others and the Reasonable Person

Presumably Hancock himself would not have been harmed by the blast (or he could have left the scene), so we’ll assume Hancock was acting in defense of the bystanders and police.  California defines self-defense and defense of others by statute, Cal. Penal Code § 197:

Homicide is also justifiable when committed by any person in any of the following cases: …  1. When resisting any attempt to murder any person, or to commit a felony, or to do some great bodily injury upon any person; or … 3. When committed in the lawful defense of such person … when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony or to do some great bodily injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished

NB: the “commit a felony” part has been constrained by the courts to refer to the kinds of felonies that allowed lethal self-defense at common law, not all felonies.  People v. Ceballos, 12 Cal.3d 470, 478 (1974).  The felony must be “some atrocious crime attempted to be committed by force.”  Id.  But threatening to blow up a bank with people inside it seems to qualify in any case.  It would also likely count as “a design to … do some great bodily injury,” and there was imminent danger of the design being accomplished.

So, Hancock may have been justified in killing the robber outright.  Does that include cutting off his hand?  Yes.  “Since a homicide is justifiable under the circumstances specified in section 197, a fortiori an attempt to commit a violent injury upon another under those circumstances is justifiable.” Ceballos, 12 Cal.3d at 477.

But the analysis does not stop there.  Although it is not directly apparent from the statute, California requires that the use of deadly force must have been reasonably necessary under the circumstances.

For killing to be in self-defense, the defendant must actually and reasonably believe in the need to defend.  If the belief subjectively exists but is objectively unreasonable, there is “imperfect self-defense,” i.e., “the defendant is deemed to have acted without malice and cannot be convicted of murder,” but can be convicted of manslaughter.  To constitute “perfect self-defense,” i.e., to exonerate the person completely, the belief must also be objectively reasonable.

People v. Humphrey, 13 Cal.4th 1073, 1082 (1996).  As is often the case, the “objectively reasonable” standard is determined by the ordinary person.  “California law expresses the criterion for this evaluation in the objective terms of whether a reasonable person, as opposed to the defendant, would have believed and acted as the defendant did.” People v. Aris, 215 Cal.App.3d 1178, 1196 (4th Dist. 1989) (emphasis in original).  Specifically:

a jury must consider what would appear to be necessary to a reasonable person in a similar situation and with similar knowledge. It judges reasonableness from the point of view of a reasonable person in the position of defendant. To do this, it must consider all the facts and circumstances … in determining whether the defendant acted in a manner in which a reasonable man would act in protecting his own life or bodily safety.

Humphrey, 13 Cal.4th at 1082-83.

Unfortunately, it is not completely clear whether this objective standard also takes into account the defendant’s physical abilities, but I think it does.  Those abilities are part of the “situation” and “all the facts and circumstances.”  So, would a reasonable person, knowing what Hancock knew and with Hancock’s abilities, have done what Hancock did in that situation?  I don’t know.  I think a reasonable person might have chosen the amputation route.  It did avoid killing the robber, and it was successful.  Maybe Hancock was unsure if, fast as he was, he could disable the robber in time any other way.

2. Imperfect Defense of Others and Mayhem

But what if Hancock didn’t act reasonably? Could he claim imperfect self-defense and try for a reduced charge, perhaps some kind of battery or even a mere assault?  Alas, no.  The crime Hancock may have committed is not murder (since the robber didn’t die) but rather mayhem:

Every person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body … is guilty of mayhem.

Cal. Penal Code § 203.  The California courts have held that imperfect self-defense is not a general-purpose defense and applies only to murder. “Imperfect self-defense is not an affirmative defense, but a description of one type of voluntary manslaughter.”  People v. Michaels, 28 Cal.4th 486, 529 (2002).  Further, they have also held that it does not apply to mayhem.  People v. Quintero, 37 Cal. Rptr.3d 884, 894-97 (4th Dist. 2006).  It is also unclear whether California even recognizes “imperfect defense of others” as opposed to imperfect self-defense.  People v. Michaels, 28 Cal.4th 486 (2002).

Now, you might be thinking, how can it be fair that Hancock is stuck with mayhem if he was acting unreasonably, but he would have gotten a reduced charge if he outright killed the robber?  The answer is that mayhem is already a less serious crime than voluntary manslaughter (the typical result of imperfect self-defense).  It carries a sentence of 2-8 years, whereas voluntary manslaughter is 3-11 years.  That’s a pretty slim difference in punishment for a pretty huge difference in outcome for the victim, if you ask me, but that’s the wisdom of the legislature for you.

III. Conclusion

It’s hard to say for certain whether Hancock acted reasonably and so was justified in doing what he did, but it’s certainly possible.  Since nobody (other than the robber) seemed to complain, I guess the LA district attorney’s office felt it was reasonable, or at least close enough.

6 responses to “Hancock and Defense of Others

  1. Would it be grounds for appeal if the jury convicted based on incorrectly understanding the actual capabilities of the 1-of-a-kind superhero? That is, the jury assumes that a less dangerous approach to the problem exists that the hero should have chosen, whereas the hero knows that he (or she, of course) couldn’t actually have successfully exercised that option?
    Obviously, this won’t come up very often with non-superhero cases, since we basically know the capabilities (of non-super)human reaction, thought, and action and weigh those fairly accurately, but I’ve seen something similar in the mundane world… people who are unsatisfied with police action in a particular case (usually a suicide by cop) because the cops shot and killed the suspect instead of shooting him in the arm or leg to stop/disarm him.

    • Its an interesting thought, but I strongly doubt it. As a general rule, appeals courts are interested in matters of law and procedure and while they can review findings of fact tend to do so in a highly deferential way and only with good reason. In short, they would not be likely to second guess the juries understanding on direct appeal.

      There might be a collateral appeal based on new evidence with the evidence being a new understanding of the limits of his/her powers. But for that, there would actually have to be some sort of new evidence that wasn’t available before. Perhaps new expert assessments that had been published and peer reviewed since the conviction? Also, it would likely get a new trial rather than acquittal if the collateral attack was successful.

  2. Good article about the movie, but “dead man’s switch” has its own Wikipedia article:

  3. This feels a lot less reprehensible than Hancock’s response to a certain insult, which would presumably leave people crippled and/or suffocated. Given that the alternative is to allow several people to die, or other methods less likely to succeed in saving them, I really can’t see any reasonable objection.

  4. From a federal perspective, and any case like is would inevitably end up in the federal court system, the question would be is Hancock considered a state actor? I would argue yes since he is explicitly asked to intervene in the hostage situation by the ranking authority on scene. I’d be more comfortable if the film had a throw away line about Hancock being deputized but c’est la vie.
    If so, Hancock would be covered by having used reasonable force for that situation. Use of lethal force under Garner requires the officer (Hancock) reasonably believe the suspect have the means and intent to cause serious bodily injury, disability, or death to the officer or others. The bank robbers had already passed the threshold for using lethal force by having the ability to cause death or serious bodily harm with explosives and automatic weapons and a reasonable person would infer they had the intent to do so. The supreme court has never proscribed which method of lethal force is to be used once the threshold is reached, so dismemberment is not necessarily off the table.
    The take home is test imposed by the court would be a question of is the force reasonable under Graham v Connor and Tennessee V Garner. IE would a reasonable person knowing the facts the officer knew at the time feel that the force used is reasonable. As a state actor, Hancock may be acting outside of his scope of employment and training but would still be covered because he is acting within the outlines of both Graham and Garner.

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