Category Archives: evidence

The Man of Steel Confesses

I know I said the post on Lois Lane’s employment contract would probably be our last post on Man of Steel, but we got a great question from Neal that I couldn’t resist writing up.  Neal—who is a rabbi in New York—writes:

You may remember that Clark Kent goes into a church and confesses to the priest (let’s assume he’s a Catholic priest, for the sake of argument, though to be clear different religions handle “confession” and counseling relationships differently) that he’s the guy everybody is looking for. Now, in NY, that priest can’t be compelled to testify or reveal information obtained while performing the duties of a clergy- penitent or clergy-congregant relationship (as I broadly understand it) but there ARE mandated reporting laws, e.g. regarding child and elder abuse.

So could the Feds or the state government have compelled the priest to testify given that:

1) An alien might not be presumed to be a member of the church, especially if he just showed up and had no prior relationship to this denomination or its clergy,

and

2) the stakes are just so damn high, like planetary destruction. If there is a mandated reporting law for child abuse- and to be clear I am not 100 percent sure even that overrides the legal protection of the clergy relationship in all instances- wouldn’t it apply on a vastly larger scale with something like this?

These questions raise several issues related to the confessional privilege.

I. The Confessional Privilege in Kansas

At common law there was little or no legal protection for statements made to a member of the clergy in confession or otherwise while seeking religious advice or counsel.  Instead, the privilege is largely derived from statutes.  Generally speaking it is weaker than, for example, the attorney-client privilege, but in some states the confessional privilege can be pretty broad.

I believe that the confessional scene takes place in Smallville, which is located in Kansas.  In Kansas the privilege is defined in the Kansas Rules of Evidence, specifically K.S.A. 60-429(b):

A person, whether or not a party, has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent a witness from disclosing a communication if he or she claims the privilege and the judge finds that (1) the communication was a penitential communication and (2) the witness is the penitent or the minister, and (3) the claimant is the penitent, or the minister making the claim on behalf of an absent penitent.

So in other words, Clark (if he’s present) or the priest (if Clark is absent) could claim the privilege (become the claimant) in order to prevent the priest from disclosing what Clark told the priest, or in order to prevent Clark from disclosing the same.

Now, there are a lot of specialized terms in that definition, including “penitent” and “penitential communication” (we’ll assume the priest is a regular or duly ordained minister).  Those terms are defined in 60-429(a):

“penitent” means a person who recognizes the existence and the authority of God and who seeks or receives from a regular or duly ordained minister of religion advice or assistance in determining or discharging his or her moral obligations, or in obtaining God’s mercy or forgiveness for past culpable conduct

“penitential communication” means any communication between a penitent and a regular or duly ordained minister of religion which the penitent intends shall be kept secret and confidential and which pertains to advice or assistance in determining or discharging the penitent’s moral obligations, or to obtaining God’s mercy or forgiveness for past culpable conduct.

So right off the bat we can see the answer to one of the issues: there’s no requirement that Clark have been a member of the church in question or otherwise have had a pre-existing confessional relationship with the priest.  As long as he “recognizes the existence and the authority of God and … seeks or receives from a regular or duly ordained minister of religion advice or assistance in determining or discharging [his] moral obligations”, that’s sufficient.  And honestly I’m not too sure about the “recognizes the existence and the authority of God” part, but it doesn’t appear to have been put to the First Amendment test, at least in Kansas.

In this case, Clark is at least seeking advice or assistance in determining his moral obligations (i.e. whether to reveal himself as Superman and try to do good in the world with his powers).  And it appears that he intended the communication to be confidential.  He and the priest were alone in the church, and I don’t recall him telling the priest it was okay to tell anyone else.  There was a strong implication that it was a confidential conversation, and that Clark told the priest what he did precisely because he believed it was confidential.

II. Any Exceptions?

The Kansas statute, like many such statutes, does not contain much in the way of exceptions.  It sets a relatively high bar to accessing the privilege in the first place, but once it’s reached, that’s pretty much it.  Many states do provide an exception for child abuse reporting, particularly if members of the clergy are mandatory reporters, but the issue does not appear to have come up in Kansas.  Certainly there is no broad exception for the public good or public safety.  And that makes a certain amount of policy sense.  The confessional privilege would be largely pointless if those confessing the possibility of endangering themselves or others (e.g. by committing a violent crime) were not protected by it.

III. But Wait, What About the Feds?

It’s all well and good that the privilege would apply in state court in Kansas, but what about federal court?  After all, it’s not exactly the local sheriff that’s looking for Clark.  Would the priest still be able to keep quiet if there was some kind of federal proceeding?

Maybe, maybe not.  There is no federal confessional privilege statute.  One was proposed as part of the Federal Rules of Evidence, but it was not approved by Congress.  Over the years a federal common law privilege has developed, and it appears to be recognized in Kansas. U.S. v. Dillard, 2013 WL 875230 (D.Kan. Mar. 7, 2013) (“Plaintiff does not take issue in this case with the general existence of the [confessional] privilege. Neither does this Court.”).

I have yet to see a federal case that describes the contours of the privilege clearly, so I will take this summary from a treatise on the subject:

The communication by a spiritual communicant is privileged if it is made to an ordained or otherwise duly accredited functionary of a religious organization in his capacity as such. … The communication must have been made for the purpose of obtaining spiritual aid or religious or other counsel, advice, solace, absolution, or ministration. It must also have been made in confidence.

Paul F. Rothstein & Susan W. Crump, Federal Testimonial Privileges § 10:3.

In this case, the federal privilege would also appear to apply.

IV. Conclusion

The state law confessional privilege probably applied in this case and there probably wasn’t an exception.  The same is likely true of the federal privilege, bearing in mind that it exists on somewhat shaky ground, having never been formally approved by the Supreme Court or even (as far as I can tell) the 10th Circuit, in which Kansas is located.

 

The Courtroom Antics of Golden Age Green Lantern

Today’s post comes from an email from an anonymous reader, who pointed us to this fantastic bit of Golden Age Green Lantern weirdness.  The blogger over at What Were They Thinking?! wonders if the Green Lantern’s antics wouldn’t be grounds for a mistrial, and our reader had a few questions of their own:

1: Would the witness’s confession be admissible in a court of law, considering it was compelled under threat? Basically, would the events of the last panel have happened the same in a court in today’s time?

2: Could the defendant’s threat to the witness be used against him in this trial (assuming it wasn’t declared a mistrial) or in a subsequent trial?

(Just in case the link goes dead, I’ll summarize the events of the comic.  The Green Lantern, as his secret identity Alan Scott, is observing the trial of the alleged leader of a slavery ring.  The prosecution’s main witness, one of the henchmen, proves uncooperative on the stand, so Scott changes into his Lantern outfit and returns to the courtroom, where he threatens to kill the henchman if he doesn’t tell the truth.  The henchman then points the finger at the defendant, who gives the henchman a death threat of his own.  This apparently leads to a guilty verdict for the defendant and the day is saved.)

I’m not going to try to figure out exactly what the relevant law was like in the 1940s.  And like many DC heroes, Alan Scott didn’t operate in a well-defined location anyway (originally “Capitol City“).  Instead I’ll approach this from the perspective of modern law and use our favorite generic big city stand-in, New York.

I. Mistrials

In New York, a mistrial can be declared at the discretion of the trial judge, either at the judge’s own direction or on a motion by one of the parties.  However, the judge must declare a mistrial on a motion by the defendant if at any time during the trial there occurs “conduct inside … the courtroom, which is prejudicial to the defendant and deprives him of a fair trial.” N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 280.10(1).  A disturbance in the courtroom (such as an outburst from a member of the public) will not ordinarily result in a mistrial unless it leads to such prejudice.

So what would be prejudicial against the defendant?  Well, having a witness give inadmissible, coerced testimony might be one such thing, especially since the prosecution’s case evidently hinged on that testimony.  It would be pretty hard to ask the jury to ignore what the witness said, especially after the defendant’s own threatening response.  What’s worse, the judge didn’t even try to exclude the improper testimony or have the Green Lantern removed from the court room. So a mistrial would seem to be appropriate, either from the trial judge or on appeal.

It’s true that mistrials are rarely granted in the real world, but this is a really egregious case, far beyond the typical case of a witness making a minor remark, such as accidentally referring to a defendant’s parole status.

II. Admissibility

As indicated above, I don’t think that the witness’s statement would be admissible.  There does not seem to be a specific rule in New York excluding coerced testimony or testimony given under duress, but New York does have its own common law version of FRE 403. People v Scarola, 71 N.Y.2d 769 (1988).  That is, evidence that is more prejudicial than it is relevant should be excluded.  I don’t know if there are any analogous cases to this one, but it seems pretty clear cut.

The admissibility of the defendant’s response, however, is another matter.  Strictly speaking, such a statement would ordinarily be admissible.  It wouldn’t run afoul of the hearsay rules (i.e. most of the people in the courtroom could testify as to what the defendant said in a future trial).  But the trouble is that explaining why the defendant said that would require explaining the whole Green Lantern outburst, which is really just a backdoor way of introducing the inadmissible witness testimony.  I suspect the defendant’s response would stay out as well.

III. Conclusion

The whole thing is shenanigans piled on top of shenanigans.  How on Earth the Green Lantern thought death threats in open court were a good idea, I don’t know.  Given its position on the last page of the comic, I suspect the writer found themselves painted into a corner and came up with a solution that is remarkable only for its inelegance.  But it’s a good example of how a superhero could actually end up preventing real justice from being done.

Batman and the Unavailable Declarant

Today we have a post based on a question from David, who asks:

I just watched Batman: Year One on Netflix, and there was an interesting issue presented that I thought I’d share. Toward the end of the movie, the corrupt Detective Flass is under indictment for involvement in a big drug scheme. Commissioner Gordon (through Batman’s intimidation) gets one of the crooks involved in the scheme, Jefferson Skeevers, to agree to testify against Flass.

Upon hearing this, Flass tells Gordon something along the lines of “he won’t testify if I have something to say about it…” The scene cuts to Skeevers unconscious in a hospital bed. Assuming Skeevers has confessed in a police statement out of court, wouldn’t this still be admissible against Flass under the forfeiture exception to hearsay as long as the prosecutor can show Flass had something to do with Skeevers hospitalization?

The Batman: Year One movie David mentions is a faithful adaptation of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, several elements of which were integrated into the Christopher Nolan Batman films.  The book or animated version are well worth checking out.  We even gave away five copies of the book to celebrate our own year one.

Anyway, back to David’s question.  Before we worry about whether any hearsay exceptions or exemptions apply we have to decide whether Skeevers’s statement would be hearsay in the first place.  We don’t know what rules of evidence apply in a local criminal case in Gotham, but we’ll use the Federal Rules of Evidence, since many state rules are based on or are very similar to the FRE.

I. Is It Hearsay?

Under FRE 801, hearsay is an out of court statement (i.e. an oral, written, or nonverbal assertion) offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement.  In this case, we’re supposing that Skeevers made an oral or written assertion that Flass was involved in the scheme, Skeevers did so out of court, and the prosecution would offer Skeevers’s statement in order to prove that Flass was, in fact, involved in the Scheme (i.e. as proof that what Skeevers said was actually true).  It doesn’t matter whether the prosecution did this by offering a recording, a signed statement, or the testimony of a police officer who interviewed Skeevers.  All of that would be hearsay.

You might think about the exemption for statements “made by the party’s coconspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy”, but although Skeevers and Flass may have been coconspirators at one time, these statements were not made during or in furtherance of the conspiracy.  Indeed, they were probably made as part of some kind of plea bargain or immunity deal.  Without any applicable exemptions, the statements are indeed hearsay, which is ordinarily inadmissible.

Normally this could be overcome by having Skeevers simply testify in person, which would give the jury a better opportunity to judge the truthfulness of his statements, and it would give the defense an opportunity to cross-examine him.  But Skeevers is lying unconscious in the hospital, apparently because Flass or someone acting at his behest put him there.  So now what?

Now we turn to the hearsay exceptions, of which there are several.  Some of them apply whether the declarant is unavailable or not and some of them only apply if the declarant is unavailable.  That said, it appears that only the latter will apply in this case.

II. FRE 803 and Recorded Recollections

You might think that if Skeevers had made a written statement for the police that his statement could be introduced as evidence under the recorded recollection exception of FRE 803(5).  After all, FRE 803 states that “The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay, regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness” (emphasis added).  And such a written statement would seem to fit the bill for 803(5):

A record that:
(A) is on a matter the witness once knew about but now cannot recall well enough to testify fully and accurately;
(B) was made or adopted by the witness when the matter was fresh in the witness’s memory; and
(C) accurately reflects the witness’s knowledge.

Skeevers clearly once knew about Flass’s involvement but also clearly cannot now recall it well enough to testify fully and accurately: he is unconscious.  The statement was made when the matter was fresh in his memory, before the incident that caused his injuries.  And we’ll assume that it is an accurate statement.

But despite the phrase “regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness“, the courts have been uniform in holding that 803(5) only applies when there is a witness available to testify that they can’t recall the matter reflected in the record.  See, e.g., Steinberg v. Obstetrics-Gynecological & Infertility Group, P.C., 260 F.Supp.2d 492 (D.Conn. 2003) (the argument that 803(5) applies to an unavailable declarant “borders on frivolous”); Jacobson v. Deutsche Bank, A.G., 206 F.Supp.2d 590 (S.D.N.Y. 2002).

None of the other 803 exceptions are likely to apply in this case, so let’s move on to the heart of the matter: exceptions that apply only when the declarant is unavailable.

III. FRE 804 and the Unavailable Declarant

Declarants can be unavailable for a lot of reasons, one of which is when they “cannot be present or testify at the trial or hearing because of death or a then-existing infirmity, physical illness, or mental illness”.  FRE 804(a)(4).  That definitely describes Skeevers.

Once a declarant is unavailable, there are some special exceptions that can apply to statement they made before they became unavailable.  Two might apply in this case.  David alluded to one of them (804(b)(6)) in the question:

The following are not excluded by the rule against hearsay if the declarant is unavailable as a witness: … A statement offered against a party that wrongfully caused — or acquiesced in wrongfully causing — the declarant’s unavailability as a witness, and did so intending that result.

If the prosecution can prove that Flass caused (and that includes indirectly causing via an agent or conspirator) Skeevers’s injuries, then it’s pretty much a slam dunk to introduce Skeevers’s statements against Flass.  After all, we already have Flass indicating his intent: “he won’t testify if I have something to say about it…”

Another possibility is 804(b)(3), statements against interest:

A statement that:

(A) a reasonable person in the declarant’s position would have made only if the person believed it to be true because, when made, it … had so great a tendency … to expose the declarant to civil or criminal liability

This exception might apply if Skeevers made the statement before he struck an immunity deal.  If he spilled the beans about his role in a criminal conspiracy in which Flass also played a part, confessing to multiple crimes in the process, then that would definitely be a statement against interest.  But if he signed an immunity deal first and then talked, then his statements wouldn’t actually be exposing him to criminal liability and so the exception wouldn’t apply.  If this did apply, however, it could be a useful backup in case the prosecution couldn’t prove Flass’s involvement in Skeevers’s unavailability.

IV. Conclusion

Apart from the issue of proof, this is a classic example of 804(b)(6), which is a rule that meshes very well with most people’s intuition about fairness—and gives criminals a disincentive to intimidate or kill witnesses.

Green Lantern # 76, cont’d

Returning to Green Lantern/Green Arrow # 76, which we started looking at last month, we find two more issues to discuss. First, whether the tape recorder Green Arrow set up would have been admissible if it had worked, and relatedly, whether Green Arrow can testify to the contents of the tape even if it’s broken. Second, whether the arrest of the villain at the end of the story is legitimate. Continue reading

Arrow: “Honor Thy Father”

This is the second episode of Arrow, and it contains two excellent legal issues for your consideration. First, the legal procedure of coming back from the dead. Second, whether the “evidence” Queen provides against Martin Sohmers would be admissible. Continue reading

Total Recall

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.

I. Amnesia

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.

III. Conclusion

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.

Time Travel, Resurrection, and Double Jeopardy

This is an issue raised tangentially by The Kingdom, a sort of spin-off storyline from Kingdom Come. The basic premise is that a villain kills Superman, then goes back in time and kills him again. And does this at more-or-less regular intervals back down the timestream.

The set up suggested at least a possible interaction with double jeopardy, prohibited by the Fifth Amendment, in that we’re looking at a situation where a defendant could potentially be charged more than once for killing the same person. On that note, we’re also going to look at the possibility of a defendant killing someone, the victim rising from the dead, and the defendant killing them again, as it seems factually similar. Continue reading

Person of Interest: Witness

We’ll be back with more comic book-inspired posts next week, but we’ve been clearing out the mailbag lately and we’ve had quite a few questions about television shows.  Today’s question comes from Brian, who asks about an episode of Person of Interest.  Minor spoilers ahead.

In the episode, protagonist John Reese is trying to protect a witness to a mob killing.  Unfortunately, the witness is shot in the shoulder.  With the mob still on their trail, Reese makes an attempt at first aid using topically applied cocaine and glue, without the witness’s prior consent.  Brian asks:

If/when the victim presents himself at the hospital and informs doctors of how it was treated, would the victim be in violation of any laws due to the presence of cocaine in his bloodstream and/or how would he be (legally) expected to handle the consequences of being given a highly addictive and illegal street drug as an analgesic?

There are several aspects to this question.  First, did Reese violate any laws?  Second, did the witness?  And third, how does the physician/patient privilege come into play?

First, a brief factual background: cocaine has legitimate medical uses, including as  a vasoconstrictor to control bleeding (that’s why it’s a Schedule II drug instead of Schedule I in the US).  Its use in that role is mostly limited to areas like the nose rather than large-scale trauma like a gunshot, but there’s at least some theoretical efficacy there.  Similarly, certain cyanoacrylate glues (e.g. Dermabond) are FDA approved for use in closing wounds.  The medically approved kind are not all that different from over-the-counter cyanoacrylate glues, so again there’s some vaguely reasonable basis for the treatment.

I. Reese’s Liability

The most obvious problem is that Reese purchased and possessed an illegal drug.  It’s hard to tell exactly how much he bought, but it was probably about a gram, which would make it fourth degree criminal possession of a controlled substance under N.Y. Penal Law § 220.09, a Class C felony, plus liability as a buyer.  Could this be excused under a necessity theory?  And even if that could be excused, what is his potential liability if his first aid actually made things worse?

A. Necessity

In New York, the defense of necessity is called “justification,” and is described by N.Y. Penal Law § 35.05:

… conduct which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal when:

Such conduct is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury which is about to occur by reason of a situation occasioned or developed through no fault of the actor, and which is of such gravity that, according to ordinary standards of intelligence and morality, the desirability and urgency of avoiding such injury clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense in issue. The necessity and justifiability of such conduct may not rest upon considerations pertaining only to the morality and advisability of the statute, either in its general application or with respect to its application to a particular class of cases arising thereunder.

Basically New York follows a “choice of evils” theory: “the desirability and urgency of avoiding such injury [must] clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense in issue.”  Importantly, the choice is judged by an objective standard: the question is whether a reasonable person would agree that Reese’s conduct was necessary under the circumstances?  See People v. Craig, 78 N.Y.2d 616 (1991).

The word “necessary” must also be emphasized.  The statute “rules out conduct that is tentative or only advisable or preferable or conduct for which there is a reasonable, legal alternative course of action.”  Craig, 78 N.Y.2d at 623.

So, was there an imminent private injury?  Yes, the witness had been shot, was severely wounded, and there was no help on the way.  Was it Reese’s fault?  No, he was trying to protect the witness, who was shot by the mob.  Was Reese’s action necessary under the circumstances?  Quite possibly, but that issue would probably ultimately come down to expert testimony.  If a reasonable person would have thought that the witness was likely to die without the ad hoc medical treatment (and ordinary first aid would have been insufficient), then it was probably justified.

B. Good Samaritan Laws

So far, so good.  Reese may be off the hook for buying the cocaine.  But what if his unusual first aid actually made things worse?  Could the witness sue?

New York, like just about every state, has a “Good Samaritan law” that limits liability for people who render aid to others.  New York’s law is particularly strong, since it gives complete immunity to qualifying people who give aid:

… any person who voluntarily and without expectation of monetary compensation renders first aid or emergency treatment at the scene of an accident or other emergency outside a hospital, doctor’s office or any other place having proper and necessary medical equipment, to a person who is unconscious, ill, or injured, shall not be liable for damages for injuries alleged to have been sustained by such person or for damages for the death of such person alleged to have occurred by reason of an act or omission in the rendering of such emergency treatment unless it is established that such injuries were or such death was caused by gross negligence on the part of such person.

N.Y. Public Health Law § 3000-a.  So as long as Reese’s cocaine & Superglue first aid didn’t amount to gross negligence, he’s in the clear.  Of course, it’s easy to argue that cocaine is so often adulterated with toxic substances that it would be gross negligence to even try to use it in that situation.  It would all come back to what a reasonable person would think and whether Reese, knowing of an unreasonable risk, took it anyway.

So that’s Reese’s liability.  Now let’s turn to the witness.

II. Possession

If Reese’s use of the drug was justified, then the witness’s possession is also necessarily justified, but if Reese’s use wasn’t justified, then could the witness be in trouble?

In New York (as in most jurisdictions), possession requires knowledge of the possession of the controlled substance.  In this case, the witness was conscious as the cocaine was administered, so he certainly had knowledge.  And while he wasn’t asked for permission in advance, he seemed to consent during the procedure (“there’s a first time for everything”), so he can’t claim that he tried to divest himself of the drugs.

On the other hand, New York does not seem to recognize an “internal possession” theory of possession (e.g. using an elevated blood alcohol level as the sole evidence in proving that a minor had been in possession of alcohol).  I could not find a case specifically rejecting this theory, but the NIH agrees with this assessment.

So merely having cocaine in his bloodstream may not be enough to prove that the witness possessed cocaine.  Of course, the prosecution could impose immunity on Reese and compel him to testify, but that seems unlikely.

III. The Physician/Patient Privilege

New York, like many jurisdictions, privileges certain communication between a physician and a patient from disclosure.  N.Y. CPLR § 4504:

Unless the patient waives the privilege, a person authorized to practice medicine, registered professional nursing, licensed practical nursing, dentistry, podiatry or chiropractic shall not be allowed to disclose any information which he acquired in attending a patient in a professional capacity, and which was necessary to enable him to act in that capacity.

Knowing that the witness had potentially adulterated cocaine in his system would probably be necessary to enable a physician to attend to the witness in a professional capacity.  So given that, it’s difficult to see how the police would ever learn about what happened, assuming neither Reese nor the witness talked.

IV. Conclusion

We don’t typically follow Person of Interest, but this episode had a lot of interesting legal issues, even if some of them turned out to be moot points (if you’ve seen the episode or read the plot synopsis you’ll know what I mean).

Legal Responsibility for Insane Robots

Insane robots that turn against their creators or try to destroy humanity are a pretty common theme in lots of media, not just comics.  Of course, this is a blog primarily about comic books, so we’ll take an example from there, as inspired by a question from TechyDad, who asks about Henry Pym (aka Ant-Man) and his potential liability for the creation of the robot Ultron, which in its various incarnations has done all kinds of terrible things, including attempting to destroy the world.

I. The Setup

The first thing to consider is whether an intelligent robot could be criminally or civilly liable for its own actions.  As with all other intelligent non-humans, the answer seems to be no unless Congress explicitly allows for it.  Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004).  Since Congress doesn’t seem to have done so in the comics, we must now consider whether any of the liability falls to Pym, and for that we need the facts of a particular case.

The example TechyDad wanted to know about comes from the TV series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, specifically the episode The Ultron Imperative.  In the episode, Ultron nearly destroys the entire world by launching S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nuclear arsenal.  Ultimately, Pym stops Ultron at the last second, but Pym is blamed for the incident, since a) he created Ultron and b) infused it with his own mental patterns, although it may have been corrupted by Kang the Conqueror and was definitely weaponized by Stark Industries, albeit with Pym’s help.  Pym accepts the blame and admits that it was his fault.

So, then, who is liable here and for what?  We’ll start with torts.

II. Tort Liability

There are three major bases for tort liability: intentional misconduct, negligence (and its close cousin, recklessness), and strict liability.  We can definitely weed out intentional misconduct, since Pym neither intended nor had knowledge to a substantial certainty that Ultron would turn violent and try to destroy the world.

Next we consider negligence.  The key question (although not the only question) is whether Pym used reasonable care in the design and deployment of Ultron (i.e. whether the cost of avoiding the incident was more or less than the expected value of the harm caused by the incident).  This is a complicated question.  On the one hand, Pym is a genius and seems to have tried very hard to make Ultron a force for good.  And before Ultron 6 showed up Pym was in the process of destroying every last Ultron component he had previously created.  On the other hand, the potential for serious harm caused by a nigh-indestructible, highly intelligent, weaponized robot is so high that it’s possible that even that level of care was not enough.  In fact, the potential for harm is so high that it might even fall under strict liability.

Strict liability (i.e. liability without regard to the level of care or fault) is rare in torts.  There are two main cases where strict liability is applied: abnormally dangerous activities (aka ultrahazardous activities) and some kinds of products liability.  Since Ultron wasn’t a product, that leaves abnormally dangerous activities.  Examples of abnormally dangerous activities include transporting gasoline, dynamite blasting, and the ownership of wild animals.  The Restatement (Second) of Torts defines abnormally dangerous activities thus:

In determining whether an activity is abnormally dangerous, the following factors are to be considered:
(a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land or chattels of others;
(b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great;
(c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care;
(d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage;
(e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and
(f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.

It seems that the creation and weaponization of Ultron meet all of these criteria.  There’s a high degree of risk of harm because robots are unpredictable.  The likelihood that the harm will be great because it was equipped with powerful weapons.  Pym couldn’t eliminate the risk despite (in the comics) decades of trying.  Such robots definitely aren’t common.  Ultron was meant to protect people, which necessarily means he would be close to bystanders, which doesn’t seem appropriate.  Ultron’s value to the community seems to have been pretty low since existing superheroes were capable of handling the threats Ultron was meant to help with.

So then, it may not matter whether Pym was blameworthy or not.  If strict liability applies then the rule is “you makes your insane robot and you takes your chances.”

III. Criminal Liability

Luckily for Pym, strict liability is even less common in the criminal law.  In fact, it’s usually only found when the stakes are very low (e.g. speeding), although there are exceptions (e.g. statutory rape).  It doesn’t apply to anything Ultron did, in any case.  Another thing we can say is that Pym wouldn’t be guilty of attempted murder (or attempted anything, for that matter) because attempt requires intent, and Pym clearly didn’t intend for Ultron to attempt to kill anybody.

That doesn’t clear Pym of wrongdoing, however.  There’s still criminal negligence (which is a higher standard than ordinary tort negligence).  For example, in New  York, criminal negligence is defined by N.Y. Penal Law § 15.05(4) this way:

A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

So, in New York criminal negligence requires a “gross deviation” from reasonable care.  Since Pym seemed to try very hard to avoid harm, he might escape criminal liability unless a reasonable person would say “there is no way to make this safe, so I won’t even try to make a robot like Ultron.”

IV. What About Other Defendants?

So that’s Pym’s potential liability, but what about the other people involved?  After all, it was Tony Stark and his company that weaponized Ultron in the first place, and Stark says that he is “just as responsible.”  That probably doesn’t take Pym off the hook, however, since Pym was involved with that work.  It might make Stark and Stark Industries liable, however.

V. Evidentiary Issues

Finally, we’ll note that Pym’s admission of responsibility could be used against him in court.  Ordinarily one cannot testify as to something someone else said out of court—that’s basically the definition of hearsay.  But a statement offered against the opposing party (i.e. Pym, as the defendant) that was made by that party is specifically excluded from the definition of hearsay in the Federal Rules of Evidence, specifically Rule 801(d)(2)(A), and many states have similar rules.  So Pym probably should have kept quiet until he talked to a lawyer; his invention did nearly destroy the entire world, after all.

VI. Conclusion

Creators and owners of robots, even intelligent autonomous ones, are (generally) responsible for injuries caused by those robots.  Between that legal rule and robots’ terrible track record of violent rebellion, it’s kind of surprising that so many comic book inventors keep making them.  Maybe Matt Murdock can lead a class action suit against Stark Industries for all the trouble Ultron has caused over the years, although the statute of limitations has probably run on some of the older stuff, since he first appeared in the late 1960s.

All-Star Superman II: The Trial of Lex Luthor

As we previously discussed, Lex Luthor is arrested and put on trial for his actions which result in the death of Superman. In the first issue of All-Star Superman, the arresting officer says that the warrant is for “attempted murder and crimes against humanity.” In issue 5, we see the conclusion of the actual trial, and it seems that at some point the attempted murder charge was seemingly dropped, as when the judge hands down the verdict, he says “Guilty on all counts, of crimes against humanity.”

This is interesting, because there isn’t actually indication of what court we’re in, and “crimes against humanity” aren’t actually crimes in most jurisdictions, in part because the term is at least as much a political term as it is an actual offense. Be that as it may, you will not find “crimes against humanity” listed in any criminal code in the US, state or federal (Well, technically it’s a crime in Puerto Rico (a first degree felony!), so maybe Luthor got busted while returning to his vacation home in San Juan, but we doubt it.). So right off the bat, there’s something we need to talk about. More than that, there’s also the question of what court, if any, would have jurisdiction over such charges. Lastly, we’ll look more generally at the issue of prosecuting supervillains, which as we’ll see is far from simple. Continue reading