Category Archives: television

Elementary: “Child Predator”

I’m back after a brief hiatus! A whole bunch of reader questions have accumulated in the mailbag, and I’m going to try to work through the backlog. Today’s comes from Bob, a British reader who asked about the American show Elementary, specifically the first season episode “Child Predator” (spoiler alert!).  If you haven’t seen Elementary, I recommend it.  I actually prefer it to Sherlock.

Anyway, on to Bob’s questions (again, spoilers):

[In the episode,] a multiple child-killer initially tricked the police into believing he was an unwilling accomplice of the “real” killer. Believing this to be the truth the DA offered immunity from prosecution in return for his help in catching the “real” killer. Holmes subsequently discovered that the roles were really the other way round – he was the real killer and the man he claimed to be the accomplice of was, in fact, the unwilling accomplice. The deal is specifically immunity from any crimes committed in concert with the other man.
The deal is implied to still hold and he openly admits his crimes to Holmes, apparently certain that he is safe from prosecution.
One of the crimes is later discovered to be a solo endeavor as the other man was in hospital when it was committed.  [At the] end of the episode the police are about to arrest him for that one crime.

I’m British and pretty much everything I know about American law comes from your blog or the sources that inspired it, so I have three questions.

1. Would the DA really offer such an all-encompassing deal.
2. When it’s discovered that he really is the prime instigator would the deal still hold.
3. Would the “solo” murder be covered by the deal  or not.

I. Immunity in Exchange for Cooperation

As I told Bob when he sent in the question (way back at the end of 2012, embarrassingly enough), I don’t have enough criminal law experience to say whether the deal was realistic.  My gut says yes.  In theory the “accomplice” had a good defense (duress, since he was originally kidnapped by the actual accomplice), he was a minor for most of the crimes, and the police and prosecution needed his help to put away the person they thought was the actual mastermind.  Granting immunity in order to allow one member of a conspiracy to roll over on another is a common tactic, and I could see it being used here.

II. Just How Strong are Immunity Deals Anyway?

It has been recognized for some time that plea bargains can be enforced against the government. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971).  But what about deals in which the defendant is offering something else, such as agreeing to testify as a witness against other participants in the crime?  It turns out that such agreements are not always enforceable.

The Second Circuit (which includes New York) has held that “the government may in its discretion make agreements in which it exchanges various levels of immunity from prosecution for the defendant’s cooperation” and that such agreements are subject to ordinary contract law principles.  U.S. v. Aleman, 286 F.3d 86, 89 (2d Cir. 2002).  These principles include construing any such deal strictly against the government (because, after all, the government wrote the deal). Id. at 90.

However, all the strict-construing in the world won’t save a defendant who fails to uphold their end of the bargain.  A common feature of immunity deals is that the defendant-witness has to agree to testify truthfully.  As the Aleman case held, “truthful” can include a sincere but incorrect belief, but it doesn’t include lying. Id.  On the other hand, while the government has the discretion to decide if a defendant has adequately cooperated, “the government’s discretion does not grant it power to turn its back on its promises to the defendant under the cooperation agreement or to ignore a defendant’s cooperation efforts simply because the defendant is supplying information that the government does not want to hear.”  Id. at 91.

Aleman was a federal case, however, and the case in Elementary was a state case.  So what do the New York courts say about this?  It turns out that there’s a fairly similar New York case, People v. Curdgel, in which the defendant was given a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against his accomplices.  83 N.Y.2d 862 (1994).  After he testified, however, the defendant went on television and said that he had lied to the grand jury.  The prosecution refused to honor the plea agreement, and the highest court in New York upheld that refusal.  The court held that the “defendant failed to uphold his end of the plea agreement and rendered the agreement valueless to the People…We cannot say that essential fairness compels enforcement of the original agreement.”  Id. at 864.

So the answer will almost certainly depend on how exactly the immunity deal was written.  If it included a requirement that the defendant testify truthfully, or if the deal itself included a statement of facts that the defendant swore to, then the prosecution would not be bound by the deal because the defendant breached it by lying.  But if the deal was sloppily written and simply gave the defendant immunity in exchange for agreeing to testify (regardless of the content of his testimony), then the government may not have much of a leg to stand on.

III. The Scope of Immunity

Whether or not the “solo” murder would be covered by the deal depends again on how exactly it was written.  The language we get from the episode is “in concert with.”  We know that the real accomplice was in the hospital recovering from a major surgery at the time of the solo crime, so he certainly wasn’t actively involved in the commission of the crime.  However, the defendant likely used the accomplice’s vehicle and other, indirect, forms of assistance.  It could be argued that the deal should be strictly construed against the government to include not just conspiracy but also accessory or accomplice conduct.

That all assumes that the deal holds at all, however.  As discussed above, it’s very likely that the deal would fall apart completely once it came out that the defendant was lying about his role in the murders.

 

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 Law and Psychiatry of The Walking Dead

Following our joint WonderCon panel (Not Guilty by Reason of Zombification? Law and Forensic Psychiatry After the Zombie Apocalypse“), the psychiatrists from Broadcast Thought, Ryan, and I co-wrote an article for Wired focusing on some of the legal and medical issues raised by The Walking Dead.  We think you’ll enjoy it.  Be aware: the article contains spoilers for the most recent season, including the finale.

Futurama: Future Stock

This guest post was written by Craig Messing, an attorney from New York, who contacted us with this excellent idea for a post.  If you are a legal professional (e.g. an attorney, judge, or law professor) or a comic book professional (e.g. an author, editor, or illustrator) and  you have an idea for a post that would be a good fit for Law and the Multiverse, feel free to contact us!  

Introduction

Future Stock is the 21st episode of the third season of Futurama.  While somewhat outside this blog’s normal purview of comic-related media (even if there are Futurama comics), the episode touches on some unique, obscure, and even speculative issues of corporate governance and probate law.  As most of the series takes place in “New New York,” we will assume New York law applies, albeit 1000 years into the future.  It should go without saying, but spoilers to follow.

I. Background

In the episode, a shareholder meeting of Planet Express leads to an “80′s guy” (referred to throughout the episode only as “That Guy”) being named chairman of the corporation.  This eventually leads to That Guy trying to sell the company and gut it for profit, and a shareholder vote over the sale.  That Guy wins the shareholder vote, but then dies (fairly gruesomely) before the transaction is concluded.  Control of his shares passes to Fry, as vice-chairman of Planet Express, who votes down the sale.  (This ignores the fact that the vote had already been cast and approved by both companies, and thus should be binding, even after That Guy’s death.)  The issues here are multiple, but we will look at two.  First, we will examine what recourse the other shareholders of Planet Express might have had to block the sale, and the likelihood of success of those efforts.  Second, we will look at whether control of That Guy’s shares should have passed to Fry, and the potential consequences if they had not.

II. Oppressed Shareholders

In the episode, That Guy purchases 51 percent of the voting rights from Zoidberg (“The shares were worthless, and he kept asking for toilet paper!”), and imposes his will on the other shareholders, all of whom vote against the sale.  The remaining shareholders are outraged, but are powerless to affect the situation.  At face value, this would seem to be textbook shareholder oppression, in which the majority shareholder(s) imposes his will, to the detriment of the other minority shareholders.  Oppression can be especially prevalent in close corporations, where there are only a limited number of shareholders – as appears to be the case with Planet Express.  (Note: after the sale is completed, all outstanding shares of Planet Express are said to be purchased “at the current market price.”  But as a close corporation, there would not be a “market” price.  This is likely an oversight of convenience by the writers, however.) 

Oppressed minority shareholders may sue to prevent the oppressive actions of majority shareholder(s).  However, New York courts have defined “oppression” as “conduct that substantially defeats the reasonable expectations held by minority shareholders in committing their capital to the particular enterprise,” and held that oppression exists “only when the majority conduct substantially defeats expectations that, objectively viewed, were both reasonable under the circumstances and were central to the petitioner’s decision to join the venture.”  In re Matter of Kemp & Beatley, Inc., 473 N.E.2d 1173, 1179 (N.Y. 1984) (internal quotations omitted).   In other words, shareholder oppression will be found only if a “reasonable person” in the shareholders’ situation would be unhappy.

In this case, a “reasonable” Planet Express shareholder would likely be ecstatic at the results of the sale.  In the initial shareholder meeting, where That Guy is named chairman of Planet Express, the company’s dismal financial state is firmly established: a pie chart is shown, illustrating the company’s revenues; a minority of the pie accounts for revenue from business operations, while the majority is made up by “an eight-dollar bank error in our favor.”  After the vote on the sale is finalized, however, the market (“purchase”) price of Planet Express is given as $107.  It would be very difficult to argue that a “reasonable” minority shareholder would disapprove of a transaction that so drastically increased shareholder value, and thus the oppression argument would likely fail.

III. Descendability, Intestacy, and Escheat

Almost immediately after the vote approving the sale, That Guy dies, Fry takes control of his voting shares as vice-chairman, and negates the sale.  However, the corporation could only assert control of these shares if there was some sort of repurchase agreement with Planet Express, under which it could buy back the shares upon That Guy’s death.  Further, even if such an agreement did exist, That Guy’s shares would be either retired or turned into treasury stock; in either case, the shares would no longer have any voting rights, and if the sale of Planet Express had not already been finalized, the minority shareholder votes against the deal would carry the day without Fry’s last-minute heroics.  However, there is no mention of such an agreement in the episode, and thus there is no reason why That Guy’s shares couldn’t pass under his will, or failing that, under the law of intestacy … except that, again, there is no mention of That Guy having a will, nor any heirs, – nor is there any indication of That Guy having a family in the 1980s that might have propagated and survived into the year 3000.

More importantly, New York law might not allow for such distant relations to inherit through intestacy, even if they did exist.  Article 4 of the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPT) governs intestate estates, and section 4-1.1 of the EPT enumerates the various classes of individuals who can take under New York law, allowing only for the decedent’s spouse, issue, parents, “issue of parents” (i.e. brothers and sisters of the decedent), grandparents (as well as “the issue of grandparents,” i.e. aunts and uncles), and “great-grandchildren of grandparents” (i.e. nieces and nephews) to take.  There is no provision for an individual outside of that closed list to take under intestacy, and as such, even if an heir does exist, it would be a very distant relation, well outside the purview of the EPT.  Apparently, New York has yet to account for time-travel and cryogenics (both of which appear to be fairly common in the future) in its probate code.  Quite the oversight.

Presuming that New New York law has not yet corrected this oversight, then That Guy’s apparent lack of both a will and eligible intestate heirs would cause the doctrine of escheat to come into effect.  Under escheat, a state acts as a sort of heir of last resort, and may take property if no other heir can be ascertained, or if property is abandoned.  See, e.g. N.Y. ABP § 102 (“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the state … to utilize escheated lands and unclaimed property for the benefit of all the people of the state, and this chapter shall be liberally construed to accomplish such purpose”).  It is not unheard of for a state to take corporate stock under escheat; in fact, such an action was expressly upheld in Standard Oil Co. v. New Jersey, 341 U.S. 428 (1951).

Escheat in New York is governed by the New York Abandoned Property Law; escheat of securities is specifically addressed in Article 5.  However, for a security to be “abandoned” – which was an implicit requirement under the Standard Oil case –  payments due to the security holder have been unclaimed by, and no written communication received from, the rightful holder, for a period of three years.  N.Y. ABP § 501(2)(a).  Only after the security has been found to be abandoned is it to be delivered to the state.  N.Y. ABP § 502.  Therefore, for purposes of the sale of Planet Express, it would seem that the 51 percent shares owned by That Guy would be in limbo for a three year period, while eligible heirs were searched for (likely in vain).  During this time, as they could not be voted, the minority shareholders would have been able to defeat the merger of their own accord.

IV. Escheat of a Majority Stake, and the Public Policy of the Future

Unfortunately, even THIS is not the end of the matter, because if escheat is exercised in this case, it would effectively transfer a majority interest in a private corporation to the state of New New York, as That Guy controlled 51 percent of Planet Express’s stock.  While seizure and nationalization of private businesses by the federal government is not unheard of, seizure is usually predicated on great turmoil, such as a World War – though even war is not always sufficient cause for nationalization, see Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952), which held that President Truman’s attempted nationalization of the steel industry during the Korean War, by executive order, was authorized neither by the Constitution, nor by Congress, and was thus illegal – but no such circumstance is present here.  There is precedent of the nationalization of a private business due to severe financial hardship (most recently General Motors), and it is undisputed that there were severe hardships facing Planet Express; however, it would be very difficult to argue (despite the many dealings the company has had with the President of Earth), that Planet Express was such a vital cog in the economy as compared with GM.

For fairly obvious reasons – it is rare for any individual to die both intestate and without any heirs to take under intestacy, and it is borderline inconceivable that an individual who is intellectually capable of obtaining majority control of a company would also die intestate – there is no precedent for a state obtaining a majority share of a company via escheat.  As such, any analysis here will be speculative.  However, I believe that the guidance of the Supreme Court in Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and Standard Oil v. New Jersey, allows us a fairly clear indication as to the public policy rationale that might guide a New New York court in rendering a decision in this matter.  Youngstown provides that nationalization (or, in a more general sense, public takeover of a private business) can occur only when expressly provided for, either by the Constitution or under the law, and Standard Oil allows for corporate stock to be taken by the state under escheat, but provides only for the delivery of the securities, and for the payment of moneys due the holder of the securities.  Similarly, Article 5 of the ABP appears more concerned with obtaining payments due under the securities than with voting rights, and in fact no mention is made in the law of the state’s exercise of voting rights.  Moreover, much like the federal government under Youngstown, it would appear that a state can only take control of a private company under specific conditions provided for under the law, such as a state banking regulator taking control of a struggling bank.  Therefore, I believe that New New York would be able to take possession of That Guy’s 51 percent stake in Planet Express under escheat, but only for purposes of taking any dividends due (or, in the event the sale did go through, its share of the proceeds from the sale).  However, as no law expressly allows the exercise of voting control on securities taken under escheat, an attempt to do so would be illegal.

V. Conclusion

While “Future Stock” does not address the option of minority shareholders to enjoin a majority action, the episode does address the reasonableness standard fairly well.  When the minority shareholders realize how much their shares have appreciated due to the impending sale, each of them (except Fry) immediately voice happiness over their being overruled, thus acting “reasonably” and defeating any notion of an oppression suit.  The episode handles the issue of That Guy’s estate (namely his 51 percent stake in Planet Express) less well.  The episode ignores both the securities and estates law on point, instead assuming that control of the shares would pass from chairman to vice-chairman.  Even if the shares were repurchased by Planet Express, regardless of how the corporation chose to treat them, they would not be voting shares unless and until they were re-issued by the corporation.  And if they passed into That Guy’s estate … as discussed at length above, that opens up a considerable can of worms, to say the least.

That said, while this particular episode might not have handled the law exceptionally well, there are at least two instances from Futurama’s current run where the show has addressed novel legal implications of its futuristic setting, in a serious, thought-provoking manner.  And besides, Futurama is a spectacular show.  You should watch it.  The hypnotoad commands youAll glory to the hypnotoad.

Arrow: “Innocent Man”

Innocent Man” is the fourth episode of Arrow, and once again, Laurel Lance’s role as an attorney takes center stage. The plot this time centers on Peter Declan, a man convicted of the murder of his wife and daughter and scheduled for imminent execution. Oliver deduces that Declan is connected to one of the people on his list, so he does a little digging and figures out that Declan is probably innocent. So he goes to Laurel, hoping that she can intervene in Declan’s case. So we’re talking about post-conviction relief. Continue reading

Castle: “Swan Song”

Swan Song” is the episode of Castle that aired on Nov. 12, 2012. It features two groups to which the First Amendment potentially applies: a religious cult, and a film-maker. The episode touches on or directly addresses several First Amendment issues, though it doesn’t actually name-check any of them. Spoilers inside. Continue reading

Arrow: “Lone Gunmen”

This episode of Arrow, entitled “Lone Gunmen”, aired back in October, but there’s some really good stuff in it. The main legal issue has to do with Oliver Queen’s little sister, Thea, getting picked up by the police for breaking into a store, while drunk, and trying on some outfits with her friends. 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

Arrow: Pilot

Arrow is the new show on the CW network, the same network that ran Smallville. This isn’t actually a spinoff about Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow from Smallville (much to the disappointment of some fans, I’m sure) nor does Allison Mack make a reappearance as Chloe Sullivan (much to my disappointment), but it represent’s the CW’s exercise of its existing rights to the Green Arrow character.

The show actually provides some rather unique opportunities to delve into legal issues, for two reasons. First, and perhaps most obviously, Green Arrow isn’t a superhuman. He’s a guy that happens to be really good with a bow and arrow. So there’s no obvious connection to Krypton, alternate dimensions, other planets, all the stuff that, while fun to watch, doesn’t leave very much for us to talk about. That’s why we’ll probably never talk about Firefly or Star Trek: those worlds, while fun, are obviously using a different legal system than ours. It’s also why shows like Smallville only occasionally gave us good fodder. We had a series of posts about it last year (one, two, three) but especially as the series went on, the stories had more and more to do with the fantastical, taking it out of our particular area of interest.

But second, and more importantly, one of the main characters—Arrow’s version of Dinah Laurel Lance, known in the comics as Black Canary—is a lawyer. This is a departure from Lance’s portrayals in other media, so we do not at this point know if she is destined to become Black Canary in the TV show. But having  only watched the first two episodes so far, there’s some real potential for recurring legal interest here.

Not a whole ton happens in the pilot episode. Oliver Queen, billionaire playboy, returns to society after having spent five years on a presumably deserted island in the North China Sea. A lot of the implications of that, and what actually happened, are going to be explored in future episodes. But Queen does take on the mantle of Green Arrow in this episode. And boy howdy does he not mind roughing people up. Getting shot with a broadhead arrow, the kind that Green Arrow mostly uses so far, is no laughing matter. They’re reputed to slice through ballistics vests, and that aside, they’re designed to cause large amounts of damage. Getting hit with one would be at least as bad as getting shot with a pistol or rifle. At least they don’t leave a huge honking shaft in you afterward. And several people get shot every episode, with no mention of Queen using non-lethal arrows with blunted tips, which would suck but probably not do much damage most of the time.

This puts Queen on pretty shaky ground, legally speaking.  In most (if not all) states he’s using a deadly weapon.*  He’s also using deadly force, as he’s causing serious bodily injury or at least engaging in conduct which is reasonably likely to do so. And at least so far, he isn’t using deadly force in his own defense or the defense of others. Not in a context that the law would recognize as a defense anyway. Defending self or others with deadly force has to be the in the context of immediate peril of serious bodily injury or death. The fact that someone is engaged in unjust litigation or has defrauded other people? Not grounds for violence of any kind.

* New Hampshire’s Supreme Court has held that a bow and arrow is not an inherently deadly weapon (and thus a felon may lawfully use one to hunt animals), but using a bow and arrow against other humans (as Green Arrow does) would make it a deadly weapon.  State v. Pratte, 959 A.2d 200 (N.H. 2008).

We’ll take a look at the legal issues that the series raises as we watch more episodes. Somewhat irritatingly for us it’s not clear what state Starling City is located in; maybe that will be cleared up in the future.  But for starters, this is a violent version of Green Arrow that runs on the darker side of what it means to be a hero. This is actually somewhat in keeping with the Green Arrow from the comics, as starting in the late 1960s with Denny O’Neil, Oliver Queen has been a somewhat anti-establishment figure. As we go through the Arrow series, we’ll also be taking a look at the classic Green Arrow/Green Lantern pairing O’Neil wrote, which is widely regarded as a watershed moment in comics history. Look for those posts to come!

Castle: “Murder, He Wrote”

This episode of Castle has Castle and Beckett interfacing with a police department outside New York City, specifically in “The Hamptons.” The Hamptons are actually a collection of municipalities at the eastern end of Long Island including Southampton and East Hampton, each of which are subdivided into villages and hamlets such as Westhampton, Bridgehampton, Amagansett, and Montauk. This post will look at local law enforcement agencies, their jurisdictions, and inter-agency cooperation. Some spoilers do follow. Continue reading