Category Archives: mailbag

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.

 

Guest Blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy

This week we will be guest blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy, a fantastic legal blog co-founded by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and Emory law professor Alexander “Sasha” Volokh.  Over the years the Conspiracy has grown to include a number of contributors, most of whom are law professors.

We’ll be taking this opportunity to address some slightly more down to earth topics, particularly the show Elementary, which we’ve received a number of questions about.  Our first post is The Adventure of the Commandeered Snow Plow.

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.

Iron Man 3: The Crimes of The Mandarin

This post was inspired by an email question from Wayne and a comment from Martin, both of whom asked what crimes The Mandarin could be charged with.  Beware: the answer requires massive spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go see it.

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Iron Man 3 Questions

We’re going to start our coverage of Iron Man 3 with some questions we received almost two weeks ago from Heiki, who saw the movie at a local premiere in Europe.  We had to wait to see it this weekend, but it was well worth it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.  It’s a great movie.  There are some fairly serious spoilers below, though.

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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.

WonderCon Follow-Up Questions

After our WonderCon panel discussion and mock trial we had the obligatory Q&A session.  Unfortunately we ran out of time.  I wanted to take this opportunity to address one question we didn’t have time for and a question that we later received via email.  If you were at the panel and had a question for us, please email us at james@lawandthemultiverse.com and ryan@lawandthemultiverse.com.

I. The First Thing We Do, Let’s Eat All the Lawyers

The last question we got from the audience was, in essence, “If all the lawyers die in the zombie apocalypse and then humans regain control, how can the courts function?”

This is a fair question, but the courts aren’t—strictly speaking—as dependent on lawyers as it might seem at first glance.  In the federal system, for example, there’s no requirement that judges be lawyers or have any legal education.  Historically federal judges have all been lawyers or at least been legally trained, but it’s not technically a requirement of the job.  So vacant judgeships could be filled from the ranks of non-attorneys.

That’s the judges out of the way.  What about the parties and their attorneys?

In a civil case the parties can represent themselves, if they are competent individuals.  Since there is no right to an attorney in a civil case, however, the incompetent, corporations, and governments are out of luck.  But there may be a solution, as we shall see in a moment.

In a criminal case there is a right to an attorney, and although that right is not absolute (e.g. the state can require proof of indigence), it does exist.  And of course the state itself must be represented by an attorney.  So something has to give.  And the answer is that the states would simply repeal, modify, or ignore their unauthorized practice of law statutes until new lawyers could be trained.  At the very least the prosecutor isn’t going to prosecute himself or herself for unauthorized practice of law, and presumably he or she would extend the same courtesy to the public defender’s office.

Without the institutional knowledge of a professional class of attorneys, the post-apocalyptic legal system would probably be pretty rough around the edges, but it would be functional.  Goodness knows enough books have been written about the law to reconstitute the U.S. legal system a hundred times over, and as any third year law student will tell you, it really only takes two years (i.e. 8-10 classes) to get the basic idea.

II. Zombie Hunting Preserves

During the panel we noted that even if zombies were considered legally dead, it might not always be legal to kill them.  For example, gratuitous mutilation of a zombie might fall under abuse of a corpse, depending on state law.  And shooting an unthreatening zombie might run afoul of laws against hunting out of season or unlawful discharge of a firearm.  We mentioned, however, that these last two might not apply if zombies had been declared a pest species.  That led to this question that we received by email from Lance after the panel:

You mentioned in the panel discussion that the state could deem zombies as pests. If so would there be ramifications to an individual for “hoarding” them for sport to let hunters hunt them on a private reserve granted that they signed a waiver of liability?

This is a good question with some hidden complexities.  Ordinarily, designating an animal a pest species would only be an exception to laws prohibiting hunting out of season, hunting in city limits, etc.  It wouldn’t typically affect abuse of a corpse, which would be the major issue with rounding up (admittedly reanimated) dead bodies and shooting them for sport.  But on the other hand, states make abuse of corpse laws and so they could, theoretically, pass exceptions creating permits for zombie hunting preserves.

But would that be enough?  The next of kin have what is often described as a “quasi-property” right in the dead body, in order to see to its proper disposition.  It is an interesting question whether that interest is a constitutional right (at some level) or whether it is an interest created by the state.  If it is an interest created by the state, then the state can take it away.  But if it is a constitutional right, then it is an inherent right.

It turns out that there are conflicting cases on this question.  In Whaley v. County of Tuscola, the Sixth Circuit held that “the next of kin may bring a constitutional claim under the Due Process Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment because the County had removed the eyeballs of the deceased without permission of the next of kin.  58 F.3d 1111 (6th Cir. 1995).  But the court’s holding that there was a constitutionally protected right to possess and prevent the mutilation of the deceased’s body rested on the fact that the state had created a property right in the body.  Presumably without that underlying right there would be no constitutional cause of action.

Other courts have rejected any constitutional dimension to the issue at all.  For example, in Dampier v. Wayne County, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that “the common-law right of burial of a deceased person without mutilation, discussed earlier, is not of constitutional dimension.” 233 Mich. App. 714 (1999).

So in theory it might be possible for the government to strip away any right for the next of kin to take possession of an unmutilated body and see to its disposition. A challenge to this might be made on First Amendment grounds, since so many religions have burial or funeral requirements, but unlike the Establishment Clause, it is difficult to strike down a law under the Free Exercise Clause: “[a] law that is [religiously] neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling government interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice”. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).  A law stripping away any rights that the next of kin have in dead bodies as a way of dealing with the spread of a zombie plague would probably be religiously neutral and of general applicability.

So, what started out as a question about declaring zombies a pest ended up at the First Amendment and religious freedom. The short version is: just calling zombies a pest species probably wouldn’t be enough, but a state could probably theoretically legalize zombie hunting preserves if a) zombies were considered legally dead b) the state was willing to rewrite a lot of laws in the process.

Quick Questions from the Mailbag

In today’s mailbag we have a couple of quick questions from a couple of Christophers.

I. Batman and Bats

The first Christopher had two questions about Batman and actual bats:

In Batman: Year One, and in the film Batman Begins, Bruce has that little gadget that essentially summons swarms of bats, which always looks really cool. But is he responsible for any of those bats dying? Because you just -know- some of them got smushed, or died somehow in the confusion. Also, if someone gets rabies or otherwise gets seriously injured by said bats, is that Bruce’s responsibility?

A. Injuries to the Bats

With regard to the bats themselves: it depends on the kind of bats and the laws of the state.  There are some federally protected bat species, and messing with an endangered species in that way would almost certainly run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, which  makes it a crime to “harass, harm, pursue, … trap, capture, or collect [an endangered species], or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” 16 U.S.C. § 1532(19).

Even if the bats weren’t endangered, state animal welfare laws may prohibit what Batman was doing.  If any of the bats were “unjustifiably injured”, for example, then under New York law that would constitute “overdriving, torturing, and injuring animals.”  N.Y. Agriculture & Markets Law § 353. Whether summoning a swarm of bats to confuse or evade criminals makes any resulting bat injuries unjustifiable is a difficult question to answer, but one has to wonder if someone has smart and well-connected as Bruce Wayne couldn’t have come up with a less risky alternative.

B. Injuries to Others

By ‘others’ I mean innocent bystanders.  We’ll assume self-defense, defense of others, or some other justification applied to any injuries inflicted on the criminals.

Ordinarily the owners of wild animals (such as bats) are strictly liable for injuries caused by those animals, assuming the injury is a result of the kind of danger that the animal poses.  Bites and rabies transmission from bats certainly fall into that category.  The trick is that Batman isn’t necessarily the owner of these bats.  There is a bat cave on the Wayne Manor property, but I don’t remember if it’s clear that these particular bats came from there.  Merely exercising some degree of control over the wild animal may not be enough to result in strict liability.

However, even if a more typical negligence standard were applied, Batman could still lose out.  He may be justified in using force against his attackers, self-defense will not necessarily prevent a negligence claim.  Would a reasonable person exercising ordinary care summon a swarm of wild bats in a crowded city?  I think a reasonable person might have opted for a less risky method.

II. Animal Transformations

The second Christopher had a question about the magician Zatanna turning people into animals:

I was reading Zatanna and she has a habit of turning people into animals (briefly, in one case, just to get rid of annoying guests.).  Later her father transforms someone into an inanimate doll?  This seems like assault … Can she be arrested and/or sued?

I think the answer is yes, such a transformation would be both a tort and a crime.  If the transformation were effectively permanent—it could not be treated and the responsible magician refused to undo it—it would be murder, particularly if the animal form was truly an ordinary animal and not the person’s mind trapped in an animal’s body.  From a legal point of view, the person would be dead.  Their cardiopulmonary and brain functions would have permanently ceased, since their body had been effectively destroyed.

In the case of a temporary transformation, that would be a very serious injury, albeit one that the victim recovered from.  That would affect the sentencing or damages, but it would still be a crime.  You might think: hey, she changed the victim back, no (permanent) harm, no foul, right?  But what if Zatanna had performed the transformation and then been killed or incapacitated?  Or if Zatanna and the victim had been separated?  We don’t want to encourage her to take the risk that she might not be able to change someone back.  This is similar to why factual impossibility is not a defense to an attempted crime: the defendant could not actually have committed the crime they were trying to, but we don’t want to let them off the hook just because they got lucky.

And then there’s the psychological harm of being turned into an animal, even temporarily.  So even a temporary transformation would be a criminal assault or battery (depending on the term the particular state uses) and a tortious battery.

Mind Control and Sexual Assault

This post was inspired by an email from Cameron, who asks whether vampires with the ability to glamour people could potentially be liable for rape or sexual assault. That is a really good question, and we’re going to take a look at it here.

But before we do, a few preliminaries. First, we understand that sexual assault is a really touchy subject, personally, emotionally, and even politically. Please do not think that by examining the fictional issue of mind control that we’re taking this lightly. We aren’t. Second, the way the criminal justice system deals with sexual assault charges is widely recognized to be problematic. We understand this too. Indeed, it’s perhaps the single most conspicuous area of dysfunction in the criminal legal system. It’s far from the only area in which injustice is routine, but in most of the rest of the legal system, the laws are basically doing what they were passed to do. Not so here. So when we conclude that something is/is not legal or will/will not lead to a conviction, understand that we are not thereby saying that this is a desirable outcome. But the fact is that in real life, sex crime cases rarely go well for anyone involved. If we’re going to look at the implications of something like mind control in this context, we need to be able to discuss things the way they are, even if we wish they were different.

Further, there really isn’t any way of talking about these issues without being fairly graphic. We will attempt to be sensitive and circumspect about this where possible, but this is necessarily going to be one of our more family-unfriendly posts. We think this is an important enough subject to be worth posting about, but those who don’t want to read about this sort of thing should feel free to come back on Wednesday, when we’ll return to our usual fare.

With those things in mind, let’s think about this. Continue reading

Santa and Restraining Orders

Today we got a very interesting question in the comments on our classic post on Santa Claus and the law.  We decided that the question was still fair game for this year since for many people it’s technically still the Christmas season.  Heck, if you’re Russian Orthodox then Christmas is still 12 days away, and for the 14,000 adherents of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem it’s 24 days away.  But enough about non-Gregorian calendars.  Let’s talk about getting a restraining order against Santa.

Ann writes:

Could an individual get a restraining order against Santa for stalking them? He does, after all, watch people all the time (both when awake and asleep), and keeps notes on them in the form of a list determining if they are good or bad in his estimation. And what would happen if one parent in the house got the peace order, but the other was helping the kids write their letters to Santa?

Restraining orders—also called protective orders in this context—can be issued in many kinds of cases, most commonly stalking or domestic violence.  We’re assuming that Santa’s relationship with Mrs. Claus is a peaceful one, so we’ll limit the discussion to stalking.

I. Criminal Stalking

A protective order is a civil remedy, but it’s often tied to criminal behavior.  New York law defines stalking in the fourth degree this way:

A person is guilty of stalking in the fourth degree when he or she intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose, engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person, and knows or reasonably should know that such conduct:
1. is likely to cause reasonable fear of material harm to the physical health, safety or property of such person, a member of such person’s immediate family or a third party with whom such person is acquainted; or
2. causes material harm to the mental or emotional health of such person, where such conduct consists of following, telephoning or initiating communication or contact with such person, a member of such person’s immediate family or a third party with whom such person is acquainted, and the actor was previously clearly informed to cease that conduct; or
3. is likely to cause such person to reasonably fear that his or her employment, business or career is threatened, where such conduct consists of appearing, telephoning or initiating communication or contact at such person’s place of employment or business, and the actor was previously clearly informed to cease that conduct.

We don’t think Santa’s behavior would meet this standard.  People couldn’t have a reasonable fear of material harm because Santa has an unbroken record of hundreds of years of peaceful activity.  It could be enough that he has actually caused material emotional harm to someone, except that the harm would have to be caused by contact or communication initiated by Santa.  The problem here is that Santa doesn’t initiate communication; instead people write letters to him.  Arguably he initiates indirect contact by entering people’s homes, but there’s no evidence that he enters homes where he is unwanted.  In fact, staying up late to ‘catch’ Santa is traditionally considered to cause him not to visit.  And of course visits from Santa Claus have rarely, if ever, caused someone to lose their job.

We won’t go into the details of the higher degrees of stalking, but suffice to say that if Santa doesn’t meet this standard then he wouldn’t meet the higher ones.

All is not lost for our hypothetical plaintiff, however.  As mentioned, a protective order is a civil remedy.  So what about a pure civil case with no underlying criminal behavior?

II. Civil Suits

As discussed in our prior post, Santa probably couldn’t be sued for trespass, but could he be sued for invasion of privacy?  When we say invasion of privacy what we really mean is the tort of intrusion.  The Restatement (Second) of Torts, gives three elements for intrusion: (1) an intentional intrusion, physical or otherwise, (2) upon the plaintiff’s solitude or seclusion or private affairs or concerns, (3) which would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.  See Mauri v. Smith, 324 Or. 476, 483 (1996) (applying the Restatement definition).  Santa definitely meets the first two elements: he intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, into a person’s private affairs or concerns.  It’s questionable whether this would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, however, since Santa’s been doing it for hundreds of years without too many complaints.

But let’s suppose the plaintiff was successful or that the plaintiff was able to get a preliminary injunction against Santa while the suit proceeded.  Such an injunction could include an order for Santa not to enter the plaintiff’s property or keep the plaintiff under observation.  If Santa violated the order then he could be found in contempt.

According to well-established principles of equity, a plaintiff seeking a permanent injunction must satisfy a four-factor test before a court may grant such relief. A plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) that it has suffered an irreparable injury; (2) that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury; (3) that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and (4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC, 547 U.S. 388, 391 (2006).  The standard for a preliminary injunction is similar but requires that the party seeking the injunction have a substantial likelihood of success in the case.  As mentioned, we don’t think our hypothetical plaintiff has much chance of success, but let’s assume they pull it off somehow (maybe Santa fails to show up and they get a default judgment).

The first two factors are closely related.  An injury can be irreparable if retrospective relief (e.g. a payment of money damages) is inadequate and instead the injury requires ongoing, prospective relief.  In this case the plaintiff may have no monetary damages but still needs to prevent a recurrence of the injury.

The balance of the hardships could also weigh in the plaintiff’s favor.  Since Santa gives toys away for free, it’s very easy for him to give toys to one less person.  Heck, since suing Santa would probably be a one way ticket to the naughty list anyway, he probably wouldn’t have much of a complaint against an injunction, apart from the negative publicity.

The public interest is generally favored by enforcing privacy rights.  Arguably the public has an interest in policing morality (see, e.g., various stories about converting Scrooge-type characters to the Christmas spirit), but we doubt the courts would favor Santa’s “self-appointed arbiter of right and wrong” approach. So all four factors argue in favor of an injunction.

However, this four-factor analysis changes if, as Ann asks, “if one parent in the house got the peace order, but the other was helping the kids write their letters to Santa.”  In that case, where one parent (and presumably the child) wanted Santa to monitor the child’s behavior.  In that case there’s a significant hardship for Santa: if the child is good then he can’t toys to a child that wants them (and according to Santa, deserves them) .  And now the public (in the form of these third parties) has a strong, well-defined interest in allowing Santa to monitor the child’s behavior and give those gifts.  The first two factors still weigh in the plaintiff’s favor, but now they must be balanced against the other two.

III. Conclusion

Although Santa probably isn’t breaking any criminal laws, he could potentially be enjoined from monitoring someone who didn’t want to be (NB: children whose parents want Santa to keep tabs on their kid probably wouldn’t be able to bring a suit against Santa, since their parents can consent to the observation).  Of course, we doubt Santa would ever do that, which may explain why it remains a hypothetical question even in this litigious age.