Looper

Looper is a pretty great movie.  The story, acting, music, and effects are all top notch.  While watching it this weekend, a couple of legal issues came to mind.  This post ran a little long, so there will be a second Looper post later this week.  There are some spoilers ahead, but I’ve tried to self-censor the most significant ones.

The movie’s premise is that time travel will be invented around 2074, whereupon it will be outlawed.  The only groups to continue using it will be organized crime, who use it to commit untraceable murder.  The victim is gagged, hooded, and bound, then sent 30 years into the past, where a person (a Looper) waits to shoot them as soon as they arrive, then dispose of the body.  The Looper’s payment comes in the form of silver bricks sent back with the victim.  The Loopers that we see in the film do not receive messages directly from the future.  Instead, they are directed by a mobster from the future, Abe, who presumably does get such messages (e.g. when and where a Looper should be in order to take care of the next victim).  There are more details, but I won’t spoil them.  That’s enough for our purposes.

The benefits of this scheme are many.  It leaves very little physical evidence in the future, and the murder itself occurs in the fairly remote past.  The first question that occurs is this: are the future mobsters criminally liable for the murder of the victims, or are they only liable for something like assault and kidnapping?

The mobsters don’t pull the trigger, so they aren’t liable as principals.  That leaves three major theories of liability: solicitation, accomplice liability, and conspiracy.

I. Solicitation

Solicitation is defined in the Model Penal Code § 5.02 thus:

A person is guilty of solicitation to commit a crime if with the purpose of promoting or facilitating its commission he commands, encourages or requests another person to engage in specific conduct that would constitute such crime or an attempt to commit such crime or would establish his complicity in its commission or attempted commission.

If the crime is completed then the solicitor is guilty of the underlying crime.  If the person solicited agrees, tries to commit the crime, and fails, then the two are guilty of the attempted crime.  If the person agrees but does not attempt the crime, then the two are guilty of conspiracy.  If the person agrees, then the solicitor is guilty of solicitation.  As a nice bonus, under the Model Penal Code definition at least, the solicitation does not have to be an explicit communication:

It is immaterial … that the actor fails to communicate with the person he solicits to commit a crime if his conduct was designed to effect such communication.

Thus merely sending the victims back in time with the money could be seen as “conduct designed to effect such communication.”

Solicitation seems like a good bet, but it’s complicated by the fact that the future mobsters aren’t asking the Loopers directly.  Instead, they send messages to Abe, who then directly solicits the Loopers.  Is that enough?  As you would probably expect, the answer is yes.  “[I]t would be criminal for one person to solicit another to in turn solicit a third party.”  Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 11.1.  The case of Com. v. Wolcott is instructive:

Thus, if Jamroz had acceded to the defendant’s request and had found someone else to murder the defendant’s husband, and that person had in turn personally killed her husband, Jamroz would have been indictable for a felony. Whether the defendant solicited Jamroz to personally kill her husband or to find another to do so is thus of no consequence. Either act constitutes a felony, and under either fact pattern, the defendant would be guilty of soliciting a felony.

931 N.E.2d 1025, 1033 (App. Ct. Mass. 2010).  So even though the solicitation is a little circuitous, the future mobsters would ultimately be guilty of soliciting the murders and thus liable for any murders that occur.

But of course not all of the future mobsters actually ask for Abe to ask the Loopers to kill someone.  Some of them merely kidnap the victims or wrangle them into the time machine.  What of them?

II. Accomplice Liability

Accomplice liability can be produced in several ways.  Some of the most common are aiding, abetting, or encouraging the commission of a crime.  Binding and gagging a victim, sending them to a remote location expecting they will be murdered there, and sending back money to pay the killer are all examples.  So the low-level future mobsters that do the dirty work would also be liable for the murders.

III. Conspiracy

Finally we have conspiracy, which has features that make it distinct from solicitation or being an accomplice.  Perhaps the biggest one is that it is a separate crime.  Solicitation “merges” with the underlying offense; it is only a separate crime if the person being solicited never agrees to commit the crime.  And accomplice liability is only a theory of liability, not a crime in itself.  By contrast, conspiracy is its own crime and it does not merge with the underlying offense.  The usual reason for this is that conspiracies are a serious criminal problem because two or more people are more likely to actually go through with a crime and they can cause far more harm than a single person acting alone.

Basically, conspiracy requires two or more people agreeing to commit an unlawful act.  Some jurisdictions also require that at least some overt act be committed towards that unlawful purpose.  In this case, we have the future mobsters agreeing with Abe to commit murder by hiring Loopers and we have Abe agreeing with the Loopers to commit murder.  Since the future mobsters know that Abe will hire Loopers, and the Loopers know where Abe’s orders come from, this is a “chain”-style conspiracy in which all three groups are liable as part of a single conspiracy.  That the people on either end don’t know each other’s specific identities doesn’t matter.  This approach is often used in drug cases, where the prosecution alleges a conspiracy between importers, distributors, and retailers.  “It is sufficient in a ‘drug-chain conspiracy’ to show that each member of the conspiracy realized that he was participating in a joint venture, even if he did not know the identities of every other member, or was not involved in all of the activities in furtherance of the conspiracy.” U.S. v. Price, 258 F.3d 539, 545 (6th Cir. 2001).

IV. Conclusion

Pretty much any way you slice it, everybody involved in the scheme is liable for the murders ultimately committed by the Loopers.  Even if there were no middlemen and the Looper scheme had sort of evolved organically as an implicit understanding between the future mobsters and the Loopers, it’s still possible to find liability through solicitation and accomplice liability.  So in this case at least, time travel does not create any major legal loopholes.

18 responses to “Looper

  1. Melanie Koleini

    I haven’t seen the movie yet so I don’t have to worry about spoilers. But time travel really turns causality on its head. You could be charged with kidnapping someone 30 years after they were murdered.

  2. I don’t think there’s a causality issue. From the perspective of the police, the kidnapping in 2074 (or thereafter) is a break in a 30-year-old cold case, the victim of which was probably never identified. Individual charges may vary, but they already do without the complications of time travel.

  3. Since there is no statute of limitation on murder it seems to me it would make more sense to send people into the future to be killed than the past. Of course you would send them far enough into the future to surpass your lifetime so when they are killed it wouldn’t matter if it was connected to you and in the present the person can only be presumed missing as there is no chance of a body turning up since the body is in the future. No body generally equals no murder. If you send the person into the past, say 30 years, there is still the chance that the day after you send the person back the police will find the body, albeit a 30 year deceased body. But in a world where a jury would know time travel exists it shouldn’t be implausible for a prosecutor to argue the 30 year old corpse is in fact the man who went missing a werk ago.

    • It’s not clear if the time machines allow travel to the future the same way as to the past. However, presuming they do, the government probably leaves a “return shipment” exception to the time travel laws for itself to send such waylaid evidence back into the past. So, a body dropped from time t=0 to time t=+100 years probably gets return shipment back to time t=0… straight into an evidence locker. Along with detailed documentation on where to find all the additional evidence that 100 years of investigation can turn up, and the name of whodunnit.

      Of course, if you’re getting into practicalities like that, there’s the issue that the time machine also seems to have a spatial range, going from China to North America while going back 30 years. Why they don’t use a set of cheap cement overshoes instead of pricey metal bars on the back, and simply change the spatial coordinates from “Kansas cornfield” to “middle of the Pacific Ocean”? (The practical answer to which seems likely “because that makes a dull movie”.)

      • Christopher L. Bennett

        Not to mention that the Sun is orbiting the center of the galaxy at about 220 km/sec, so in the course of 30 years, the Solar System would’ve advanced about 200 million kilometers. A time machine would have to traverse a considerable spatial distance even to reach the “same spot” on the Earth’s surface at a different time, something most time-travel fiction ignores going back to H. G. Wells. So if the machine’s “aim” were even slightly off, the victim would materialize in empty space. Which would be a much better option for the mob, since there’d be virtually no chance of the body being found, and no need to waste all that silver and gold paying off the Loopers.

        Hey, come to think of it, what’s the economic effect of sending all those precious metals 30 years into the past?

      • The movie doesn’t address it in any way but my personal assumption was that there were only a very few actual bars that the mob just recycled via time travel. Since the bars were converted into usable cash through the mob (with the obvious exception of the stash) all the metal cycles back through them there is no difficult maintaining control. This also would explain why the bars are marked with some sort of code, to allow inventory tracking, so that they are actually just paying a looper with a single bar looped 50 times (melted and re-coded for each loop) and they can easily destroy their entire stash if they don’t follow procedure by tossing the original bar into a nuclear reactor if they go rogue at the cost of a single bar rather than losing hundreds and having their rogue still have that money.

    • They might not be able to send people into an undiscovered future. One thing time travel probably would do is lead to the repeal of all statutory limitation laws. Just too complicating.

    • It was not explained in the set-up for this blog WHY the gangsters choose the past.

      Murder is immediately detected in the future, thanks to some undisclosed technology. Sending people into the future does not create a workaround for that problem.

      Another task of the Loopers is body disposal. Presumably the dead body will be detectable by the future murder-detection technology once it is online. Loopers incinerate the body as part of their duties.

      • “Murder is immediately detected in the future, thanks to some undisclosed technology.”

        Considering that the main motivation comes from a murder in the future… that whole plot point kinda flies out the window…

    • Technically when you dispose of a body you are “sending it to the future”. Assuming the body is ever discovered you are hoping it won’t be for another 50-60 years in which case by the time they are able to finger you as the killer you are too old to go to trial, if not already dead.

  4. Of course, this analysis leaves out the cases where a Looper does not get his thirty pieces of silver as payment. However, getting into that would involve some further minor spoilers — early in the movie, but central to the plot.

    How about a complication to the evidence? Suppose boss Abe is fairly careful to track each (apparently) code-stamped bar of silver, and makes sure that the bar is the one sent back in time. This obviously creates massive headaches for the physicists, but that’s not relevant for this blog (aside from perhaps explaining the existence of the law against time travel). Does this create evidentiary headaches, since the silver now exists only as a product of its own loop, leaving no direct evidence that any material inducement was sent back in time? Or does it suffice to simply show that the bars were purchased? Does it help if Abe’s purchases are with his own criminal proceedings? Would an audit indicating the Looper had corresponding amounts of unexplained income be necessary corroboration, sufficient in itself, or irrelevant?

    • Given that the bars of silver are eventually sold for cash, the selling of the bar takes it out of the hands of the Looper’s syndicate. If you never sell it, it does not really matter if it is silver or tin foil. It only becomes a payment when converted into the currency of the day.

  5. Does the movie give a reason (such as limits of time travel, though making a time machine that is NOT also a teleporter has issues with the fact that the Earth is moving really really fast, but that’s another issue) why the mobsters don’t just dump their victims in the middle of the Sahara and skip having to pay anyone?

    If time travel was used to solicit a crime without an unlimited statute of limitations, what are the legal implications for the mobsters in the future?

    • Machines seem to be built so they are “sync’d” with a time/location. The arrival spot for any given looper is always the exact same spot. And there is a moment in the movie where the target does not arrive exactly on time, indicating that delays in the future result in delays on arrival; thus demonstrating further that each machine and arrival point is “hardwired”.

  6. Assuming the victim knows the identity of the men who kidnapped him and threw him back in time, can a case be made against them 30 years in the past or would it not be seen as a crime until they actually do the kidnapping?

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