Sep 18 2011
Assuming that the hero is a vigilante and the district attorney is furious, which felony charges might apply under U.S. law?
1. Assault and battery, probably aggravated if superpowers are involved. The superhero will claim that he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others. That’s fine if he was just responding to a crime in progress. However, if he initiated the action (like attacking a gang stronghold or hunting down a supervillain), self-defense is probably off the table because the only imminent danger was created by the hero’s actions. In particular, a self-defense claim is awfully tenuous if the hero was breaking-and-entering.
2. Felony murder, if anybody dies (criminal or bystander). Assault is a violent felony, and any deaths caused even indirectly by a violent felony are deemed murders even if the superhero didn’t intend to kill anybody. If a superhero breaks into a hostage situation and a criminal kills a bystander in the crossfire, the superhero can be charged with murder unless he was authorized to be there. As far as the law is concerned here, it doesn’t matter that the superhero was fighting against the shooter and that the superhero did not intend for a civilian to get hurt. Also, if a vigilante causes a criminal to die (either intentionally or not), that would also be felony murder.
3. Reckless endangerment, if any bystanders get hurt. In severe cases, this could be a felony. (E.g. vehicular manslaughter if Batman happens to hit anyone while driving several hundred miles per hour through Gotham traffic).
4. Obstruction of justice. For example, breaking into a hostage situation while the police are still trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker would be a felony in some states. (Note: if nobody gets hurt, the DA might knock this down to a slap on the wrist, particularly if the superhero is extremely popular).
5. Tampering with evidence. This felony would apply any time a superhero conceals, alters or destroys evidence (or coerces witnesses) that would be used in an eventual case or other official proceeding. One relatively common example is destroying video evidence proving the hero’s secret identity—the DA can charge him with felony evidence tampering (“he’s destroying evidence to avoid being charged with felonies”).
6. Possession and/or plotting to make weapons of mass destruction. The United States classifies basically everything interesting as a “weapon of mass destruction,” including landmines, “bombs of all sorts,” sawed-off shotguns and assault rifles. Batman’s missile-armed vehicles and everything in the Punisher’s arsenal would count. Space stations with death-rays, rocket-propelled ninja stars and New York taxis are not specifically listed, but all available evidence points towards “too interesting.”
7. False imprisonment/kidnapping. If Batman abducts a criminal to interrogate him, that’s a felony. However, Spiderman is legally entitled to web up a criminal that was committing a crime. (Private citizens are allowed to detain criminals until the police arrive).
8. Some white-collar crimes may apply.
- For example, WayneCorp is a publicly-traded company that secretly uses resources to help Batman, so Bruce Wayne is probably falsifying financial information, defrauding shareholders and/or possibly embezzling from the company. (Would-be superheroes: if you own 100% of the company, there’s less oversight and you’re clear on embezzlement).
- Computer hacking and/or electronic interference.
- Some scientists might also be guilty of crimes particular to their field. I’m not exactly sure what sort of authorizations you would have to get to open up a laboratory with incredibly volatile chemicals and/or Earth-endangering experiments in lower Manhattan, but I’m guessing the Fantastic Four didn’t mention that to the zoning board. (Hell, if you want to open up a hot dog stand in Manhattan, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has 35 pages summarizing the permit process and relevant regulations). I can only shudder to imagine what they would come up with for a lab that threatens to blow up the city four times a month.
- Clark Kent might be committing fraud by not telling the Daily Planet he’s Superman. That omission caused him to receive a job he wouldn’t have received otherwise (because it’s a huge conflict of interest for Superman to write crime stories in Metropolis without disclosing that he’s Superman).
- Xavier might be committing fraud when he tells parents that his school is a safe environment for their kids. He never mentions the physical danger he routinely places students in. (Uhh, their training room is literally called the Danger Room).
9. Maybe crimes related to child sidekicks or students. These might include contributing to the delinquency of a minor (thanks, Dani!), neglect and maybe even abuse. For example, Batman tries to force Robin to eat rats in All-Star Batman & Robin #4 and it somehow goes downhill from there. Professor Xavier could face child endangerment charges related to the “Danger Room,” deploying minors on paramilitary missions, and hiring homicidal instructors.
10. Breaking and entering. On the plus side, this might be a misdemeanor depending on the particulars of the incident and the criminal history of the superhero. If the superhero is trying to find evidence about a potential villain that looks like an upstanding member of the community, that’d probably go over pretty poorly. B&E might also anger police by making their work harder in a few ways. First, B&E could easily make the villain more cautious in the future. Second, it could make the police’s case fall apart if key evidence gets thrown out in court. Third, if the heroes take anything while breaking and entering, they’re interfering with the police’s ability to do their job (evidence tampering).
11. Torture, under some circumstances. By definition, torture entails severe abuse with the involvement (or acquiescence) of a public official or someone working in an official capacity. Commissioner Gordon has passed on opportunities to arrest Batman, so Batman (and maybe even Gordon) might get charged with torture if Batman throws a subdued criminal 10-15 feet on the pavement to make the criminal cooperate.
12. Property damage, sometimes. For example, in New York, intentionally damaging somebody’s property with explosives constitutes first degree criminal mischief and can carry a sentence of up to 25 years in prison. In Missouri, knowingly inflicting more than $750 worth of property damage is first degree property damage and can carry a sentence of up to seven years.
13. Possibly laws related to police misconduct, if the superheroes are government-sanctioned.
- Selective enforcement of laws (e.g. turning a blind eye to a friend who commits a crime).
- Violating major procedures (e.g. allowing evidence to get compromised or getting too rough during an interrogation or arrest).
- False arrest: SHIELD might arrest a villain for a crime even though it knows he/she is innocent to buy time for charges which will actually stick.
- Planting false evidence.
- Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on duty.
14. Perjury. For example, a hero might attempt to cover his secret identity, protect a friend or family member from prosecutors or villains, or keep operational details out of the public eye. An adversarial attorney might provoke the hero into lying by asking potentially dangerous questions (e.g. probing into personal details which are only tangentially relevant to the case).
As always, I am not a lawyer, so please consult a lawyer if you have any charges related to weapons of mass destruction or torture coming up. If you’re looking for more ideas about how to incorporate legal issues into superhero stories, I’d definitely recommend Law and the Multiverse. James Daily and Ryan Davidson actually are lawyers and they’ve written the book (or a book worth of blog posts) on this subject.