Thursday, September 10, 2009

Glee: Beware of Flying Mailmen

Facts: To help him concentrate on the road while driving, Finn likes to think about unusual things, such as dead cats. While he's out practicing his driving skills with his mother, Finn is distracted by such thoughts and runs into the local mail carrier, who is severely injured by the collision.

Issue: Did Finn commit a crime even though he accidentally struck the mail carrier?

Law: A battery is an intentional, harmful, nonconsensual touching of another. An assault is either an attempted battery or a negligent injury of another with a deadly weapon.

Analysis: This example highlights the (often confusing) differences between assault and battery. While a battery is always intentionally, the law of assault developed to address behavior that was just shy of a battery. In Finn's case, he likely did not intentionally strike the mail carrier, so he couldn't have committed a battery. But he was rather negligent in not paying attention to the road, so at a minimum he committed an assault as a car has been treated as a deadly weapon.

Bonus: As you can see, there are basic problems with the common law crimes in the context of this case, which is why most states have separate statutes dealing with striking people with vehicles. For example, in Finn's Ohio, they have a vehicular assault law that would likely apply in this situation.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

90210: I Know What You Did Last Summer

90210: To New Beginnings
(originally aired Sept. 8, 2009)

Facts: At an end of the school year party, Naomi (wrongly) accuses Annie of sleeping with Naomi's boyfriend, Liam. Annie, who's been drinking, denies the allegation but Naomi continues to berate Annie in front of everyone. Annie calls the police on the party and runs out in tears.

While driving home, Annie is still emotionally distraught and driving erratically. Because of poor lighting, she does not see someone walking in the road and she runs him over. She knows she hit someone but does not stop. Instead, she heads home and hides in her bedroom all summer checking news stories about a comatose man (John Doe) who was the victim of a hit and run.

Right before the school year starts, Mr. Doe dies as a result of the accident.

Issue: Did Annie murder John Doe?

Law: Murder is the intentional killing of another person. Involuntary manslaughter---a lesser-included offense to murder---is the unintentional killing for another person due to the actor's reckless conduct.

Analysis: Looks like Annie might be graduating from high school into a correctional facility. While Annie likely did not intentionally hit Mr. Doe, her hitting him with her car was the proximate cause of his death, and her behavior that night was reckless: driving after drinking, swerving on the road, and in an extreme emotional state. This is a classic case of involuntary manslaughter.

There aren't enough facts to know if Annie was intoxicated but even if she were intoxicated, it's not a defense to manslaughter because manslaughter is not a specific intent offense. Recall that the defense of voluntary intoxication can only negate the intent in specific intent offenses, and voluntary intoxication is all Annie could argue because it appears she knowingly consumed alcohol before driving.

Bonus: Most states also make it a crime to leave the scene of an accident (i.e., a hit and run). According to California Vehicle Code § 20,000 (which applies in the 90210 zip code), a driver who leaves the scene of an accident that results in serious injury or death of another faces imprisonment "in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not less than 90 days nor more than one year," as well as a possible fine of $1,000 to $10,000. But the judge can, "in the interests of justice," reduce or eliminate the confinement.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August Recess

We will resume our regular programming later this month in advance of the launch of the fall television season premiere.

Meanwhile, enjoy two recent articles from the ABA on their ranking of top legal television shows:

The Top 25


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ideas Soliciation

With few new (or interesting) shows on television this summer, I'm noticeably lacking in sources for new posts. And since I'm about to hit 200 visitors, I thought I'd solict you for ideas from movies, television, literature, whatever.

Please post your ideas in the comments section. Assuming I'm familiar enough with the facts, I'll write up a post.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Potter (Part II): Not Without My Horcrux

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter travel to a magical cave over a stormy coast, in hopes of recovering a magical locket belonging to Voldemort. After travelling across an enchanted lagoon, they arrive at an island, where they see a case under a pool of potion. Dumbledore (with Harry's assistance) drinks all of the potion and Harry takes the case before they head back to Hogwarts. After Dumbledore is killed, Harry opens the case and sees the item inside is a forgery placed there by R.A.B., who took the original many years ago.

Issue: Did Dumbledore and Harry commit a crime even though the locket is a forgery?

Law: Larceny is the intentional taking of another's property with the intent to permanently deprive the person of his property.

Analysis: Likely. Although Dumbledore and Harry did not take any of Voldemort's property, they left the cave with a case believing it belonged to Voldemort, i.e., with the intent to permanently deprive Voldemort of the locket. Because Dumbledore and Harry did not complete the crime of larceny against Voldemort, they are only guilty of attempted larceny because they took a substantial step toward committing the underlying larceny (carrying away the case with the fake locket). At the same time, they are probably guilty of larceny of R.A.B.'s property, under a theory of transferred intent.

But, you're probably thinking that Dumbledore and Harry were justified in their actions because it was to prevent a greater harm in the form of Voldemort. This is the defense of necessity, which excuses some criminal conduct if there is an imminent danger and the harm from the conduct would be less than the harm from the imminent danger. Harry (since Dumbledore is dead and can't be prosecuted anymore) has a good argument here.

Bonus: They may also be guilty of conspiracy to commit larceny as there appears to be an agreement between Dumbledore and Harry to retrieve this item, even though Harry may not have known exactly what they were going to do at the time he agreed to help Dumbledore and at the time they left the cave with the fake locket.

For an additional post on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, click here.


Harry Potter (Part I): Transferrence

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Romilda Vane slips some love potion into a box of chocolates and leaves them for Harry Potter to eat. Harry's roommate, Ron Weasley, eats some of the chocolates and falls into a trance. Harry finds Ron and takes him to Professor Slughorn, who's an expert in potions. Slughorn gives Ron a tonic and Ron recovers, without any physical damage. To celebrate, Slughorn opens up a bottle of mead and pours a glass for each of them. Ron drinks first, collapses, and starts foaming at the mouth. Harry acts fast and saves Ron. They later learn that Draco Malfoy, hoping to avoid Voldemort's command that he kill Albus Dumbledore or face his own death, switched Slughorn's mead for the poisoned bottle, hoping Slughorn would give the poisoned bottle to Dumbledore.

Issues: Assuming the common law extends to the magical world, did Romilda commit a
crime against Ron, Harry, both, or neither? Did Draco commit a crime against Ron even though he intended the poison for Dumbledore?

Law: Poisoning without the intent to kill (and without causing death) is a battery. Attempted murder is taking a substantial step to taking another's life with the intent to actually take another's life. Under the theory of transferred intent, a person transfers his intent to injure or kill one person if he accidentally injures or kills a different person by the same act.

Analysis: Romilda likely committed a battery against Ron and attempted battery against Harry. Although Romilda intended to poison Harry with the love potion, she actually committed a battery against Ron by poisoning. While Ron physically unharmed by the poisoning, it was an offensive touching that he did not want. In sending the chocolate to Harry, Romilda also took a substantial step toward committing a battery by poisoning against Harry.

Draco is also likely guilty under a transferred intent theory. He intended for Slughorn to give the poisoned mead to Dumbledore (and to kill Dumbledore in the process). Instead, Ron drank some of the mead and almost died. Since no murder took place, Draco is only guilty of the attempted murder of Ron since he had the intent to kill and took a substantial step in placing the poisoned mead in Slughorn's office. Similarly, Draco is also likely guilty of attempted murder of Dumbledore.

Now, Draco and his fancy lawyer will (and should) argue that Draco only did what he did because Voldemort threatened to kill Draco if he did not kill Dumbledore. This is the defense of duress, which excuses conduct done under the imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm and the reasonable belief that the threat is real. However, duress does not extend to murder, so it is unlikely Draco could use this defense in the case of attempted murder.

For an additional post on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, click here.


Friday, July 17, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper: A Final Exam

Ed. Note: Because this movie was so awful, I spent a lot of time thinking during the show that the facts of this movie would be great for a criminal law exam since many of the fundamental criminal law issues came up. Now, I doubt the screenwriters were thinking about criminal law at the time (or a good plot, for that matter), but I thought it would be amusing to see what possible crimes (and defenses) were part of the story.

Here's the breakdown:

Class valedictorian Denis gives his graduation address, wherein he professes his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper. He also implies that Beth's boyfriend Kevin is a loser, his best friend Rich is gay, and Greg the bully has been sexually abused. In short, people are not happy with Denis, and after his speech Greg gives Denis a menacing look that causes Denis to recoil in fear.
Did Greg assault Denis? Likely. An assault is an attempted offensive touching of another or placing someone in fear or apprehension of such contact. Because Denis recoiled from Greg's gesture, Greg likely put Denis in fear of a beating.
Kevin finds Denis and grabs him.
Did Kevin commit a battery toward Denis? Likely. A battery is the use of force against another that causes injury or an offensive touching (a/k/a a completed assault). Denis did not like or consent to Kevin's touch that pulled on Denis's clothes. Because Kevin used nonsensual force against Denis, he likely committed a battery.
Kevin and his two friends are still angry with Denis and want to get back at him. So the three guys, who are high on cocaine at the time, drive over Denis's lawn, bust open the backdoor to Denis's house, and shoves Denis.
Did Kevin and his pals' form a conspiracy? Likely. A conspiracy is an agreement between at least two people to commit an offense, and all parties to the agreement are liable for the acts of other conspirators if those acts are within the scope and objective of the conspiracy. It appears that Kevin and his friends agreed to go to Denis's house and committed an overt act when they drove on Denis's lawn. Under accomplice liability, they are all liable for all subsequent acts any of them commit against Denis.

Did Kevin commit a burglary? Likely. A burglary is the breaking and entering into the dwelling of another with intent to commit an offense. Kevin bust open a door, which satisfies the first part of burglary. Before he broke into the house, Kevin shouted about beating up Denis, which shows his intent to commit an offense (batter) at the time he broke into the house.

Did Kevin commit another battery of Denis? Likely. A battery is the use of force against another that causes injury or an offensive touching. Kevin's punching of Denis caused an injury to Denis's face and it was surely nonconsensual.
  • Can Kevin and friends avail themselves of the voluntary intoxication defense? Probably not. Under the defense of voluntary intoxication, Kevin can argue that the cocaine made him unable to form the specific intent needed in conspiracy and burglary. However, it appears that Kevin and friends were predisposed to commit these offenses and simply used cocaine before committing these acts. Nothing about these incidents suggest Kevin (or his friends) were unable to form the specific intent due to the cocaine use.
Kevin then throws a microwave oven at Denis, missing Denis but creating a huge hole in the wall (and destroying the microwave). Eventually, Denis and the others escape without Kevin.
Did Kevin commit property damage? Likely. Property damage (or vandalism) is the intentional defacing or destruction of another's property. While Kevin may not have intended to damage the wall or microwave, his throwing the microwave was an intentional act that caused the various property damage.

Did Kevin assault Denis by throwing the microwave at him? Likely. As discussed, an assault is an attempted offensive touching or placing one in fear of such a touching. Kevin failed to hit Denis in the head with a microwave. This was certainly offensive. Moreover, Denis was placed in fear of getting hit by the microwave. Therefore, Kevin's act likely satisfied both forms of assault.
Beth, a notoriously bad driver, drives them all to the woods, where they drink alcohol. Rich, Cammy, and Treece see a field of cows, hop over a fence and unsuccessfully try to tip over a cow.
Did Rich, Cammy, and Treece's trespass and attempt to damage property? Unlikely and likely, in part. Criminal trespass is the entry of another's property for an unlawful purpose (as opposed to civil trespass which is the just the intentional, nonconsensual entry of another's property). Here, Rich and the ladies wandered on to the property after seeing the cows but it's unclear if they only entered the property for an unlawful purpose, so they are unlikely liable for criminal trespass.

However, they did attempt to damage one of the cows. An attempt is the taking a substantial step toward committing an offense with the intent to commit the offense. Here, they talked about tipping over a cow and pushed on one of the cows with the intent of tipping it over. Unfortunately for them (but thankfully for the cow), they were unable to move the cow. But, in the process they likely took a substantial step toward damaging the cow.

Did Rich, Cammy, and Treece also commit conspiracy to damage property? Likely. At some point, the three entered into an agreement to tip over the cow (damage property) and they took an overt step to tipping the cow (pushing on it). They are also likely liable for any damage to the cows as a result of their act, if the damage is reasonably foreseeable.
The gang gets back in the car, with Beth again at the wheel. To freak everyone out, Beth drives with the headlights off and crashes into a car where Denis's parents are engaged in maritals.
Did Beth's damage property? Likely. Property damage is just that, the damage of another's property. The issue here is whether the damage was the result of Beth's intentional act or negligence. At a minimum, she was negligent in driving with her lights off, and criminal property damage can be based on an intentional or negligent act.
Denis, Beth, and the gang wind up at a house party, where Kevin finds Denis and punches him several times. In an effort to rescue Denis, Beth drives Kevin's Hummer into the house, destroying a wall but allowing Denis an opportunity to escape. The drive away in Kevin's car.

The gang heads to their locked high school, get inside until Kevin shows up and tries to stomp on Denis, until he is distracted by Rich snapping at towel at Kevin's behind. Denis, Beth, and the gang escape and leave in Beth's car (leaving Kevin's car behind) and spend the rest of the evening in a cabin in the woods. Denis returns home the next morning to parents angry at him for trashing their house.
Did Kevin commit another battery of Denis? Likely. See above for an explanation of the last time Kevin punched Denis.

Did Beth damage property? Likely. Beth drove Kevin's car into another person's house. The car was damaged and the house lost a wall. So she's likely liable for damage to the car and to the house.
  • Can Beth assert self-defense of Denis as a defense to her property damage? Unlikely. The defense of others allows someone to use force against an aggressor of a third-party to the same extent the third-party can use self-defense. Under self-defense, someone can use force against an aggressor if there is a reasonable belief of imminent, unlawful force. The amount of repelling force must be proportional to the aggressor's force (i.e., you can't use deadly force to repeal a non-deadly force assault). Here, Beth could have used force against Kevin since Kevin was using force against Denis, but driving a car into a wall is disproportionate to what Kevin was doing to Denis. She likely has no defense for this act.
  • Can Beth assert the defense of necessity as a defense to her property damage? Unlikely. The defense of necessity excuses some criminal conduct if there is an imminent danger and the harm from the conduct would be less than the harm from the imminent danger. Here, driving a car into a house created greater harm than Kevin punching Denis around for a bit. Therefore, Beth likely has no defense for this act.
Did Beth commit a larceny of Kevin? Likely. A larceny is the taking of another's property with intent to permanently deprive the person of his property. Beth took Kevin's car without permission and gave no indication that she was going to return the car. She drove the car to another location and, but for Kevin arriving with her car, there's no indication she was not going to keep driving Kevin's car for the time being.

Did Kevin assault Denis? Likely. Refer above for the definition of assault. Kevin tried to stop on Denis and he would have done so, but for Rich intervening and Denis running away.

Did Rich commit a battery of Kevin? Likely. Rich snapped a towel at Kevin's behind, which was an nonconsensual act and an offensive touching to Kevin.
  • Can Rich assert self-defense of Denis as a defense to Rich's batter of Kevin? Likely. As discussed, you can act in defense of a third-party if the third-party is faced with an imminent threat and you use proportionate force against the aggressor. Kevin was trying to stop on and beat up Denis (a battery) and Rich responded by snapping a towel at Kevin. While the towel snap was also a battery it was, arguably, of less force than what Kevin was using against Denis, and therefore is likely an appropriate form of defense of another.
Total: 13 or 12 (if you excuse Rich's battery based on a valid defense). I excluded Kevin's pals for counting purposes--under accomplice liability, assume they are also individually liable if Kevin is liable. Same for the girls with Rich in the field.

Did you spot anything I missed?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Hangover: The Tyson or the Tiger

The Hangover (2009)

Facts: Doug, his two best friends (Phil and Stu), and his future brother-in-law Alan go to Las Vegas for one last weekend of bachelor mayhem before Doug's wedding. To start the night, the guys head to the roof of Caesar's Palace, where Alan offers a bottle of Jagermeister and shot glasses. Unknown to the other guys, Alan dropped what he thought were pills of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (a/k/a ecstasy) into the bottle of Jager; In reality, the pills were flunitrazepam (a/k/a roofies--or "floories," if you prefer). The men then began their night of debauchery, which involved a lot of alcohol consumption.

The next morning they woke up, very hungover, and found a tiger in their bathroom. They do not remember anything that happened after they had the shots of Jager on the roof. Mike Tyson, the owner of the tiger, confronts the guys and tells them to return his tiger. They bring the tiger back, at which point Tyson shows video footage of them taking the tiger from his property via the front drive gate.

Issue: Did the guys commit a burglary, a larceny, or both OR did their intoxication negate everything?

Law: A larceny is the taking of another person's property with the intent to permanently deprive the person of the property. A burglary is the breaking and entering into the dwelling of another with intent to commit an offense.

Involuntary intoxication is a defense to criminal conduct if the accused unknowingly ingests the substance that causes the intoxication.

Analysis: Probably no crime here. On their face, the facts seem to satisfy the elements of larceny and burglary. With the burglary, they opened the gate of Tyson's house they committed a breaking because they had to move something to enter the property. The issue is then whether they had the intent to commit an offense, which in this case would be the larceny. On the larceny, they clearly took Tyson's property (the tiger) but did they intend to permanently deprive Tyson of the tiger or were they just borrowing it? The best argument against them is that they never gave an indication that they were simply borrowing the tiger, of course the guys will say it was just a prank and they were going to return the tiger later in the day. That doesn't help us answer this case, though.

The real issue here is whether their behavior is excused because there were unknowingly drugged with roofies that made them unable either to control their actions or to form the necessary intent to commit these acts. Doug, Phil, and Stu did not know that Alan put anything in their drinks, meaning they have a strong argument that they could not have intended to commit either the larceny or the burglary.

Alan could (and should) argue that he mistakenly believed he was taking a different drug and should also benefit from this defense; however, Alan's mistake is not completely innocent as he knew he was putting some illegal substance into the drinks. Alan would also want to argue for the defense of voluntary intoxication (since he caused his own intoxication) as this defense is only available for specific intent crimes, such as burglary and larceny--they both require an addition level of intent above the basic intent to commit the crime: intent to commit an offense (burglary) and intent to permanently deprive (larceny).

Bonus: Assuming the intoxication defenses do not work, the guys are probably also guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to commit larceny because they entered into an agreement and committed an overt act by going to Tyson's house. As we've discussed, conspiracy does not merge into a completed offense and you can be found guilty of both.

Double Bonus: Assuming the guys were simply intoxicated from their excessive alcohol consumption, they could argue they were unable to form the specific intent needed to commit burglary, larceny, and conspiracy (also a specific intent offense).


Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Proposal: Scamming Your Way into the Country, One Canadian at a Time

The Proposal (2009)

Margaret is a Canadian and a demanding editor at a publishing house. After she is unable to renew her work visa, she blackmails her assistant Andrew to marry her so she can stay in the country. In exchange, she'll make him an editor. To help convince a nosy immigration agent, Margaret goes with Andrew back to his hometown of Sitka, Alaska, for the celebration of his grandmother's 90th birthday. Over the weekend, Andrew's family comes to accept Margaret and welcome her into the family. In fact, they want Margaret and Andrew to marry before they need to go back to New York at the end of the weekend.

Andrew's grandmother, excited that she'll live to see her only grandson wed and believing that Andrew and Margaret's relationship is not a sham, gives Margaret a piece of jewelry that has been in the family for years. Margaret accepts the gift, but she later calls off the wedding because she regrets what she's doing to Andrew and his family.

Issue: Did Margaret commit a crime in accepting the gift?

False pretenses is the obtaining of another's property through a false representation of an existing fact.

Analysis: Probably. Margaret convinces Andrew's grandmother that she and Andrew are in a romantic relationship and are going to get married. Based on this false representation, she gets (even though she doesn't ask for) the antique jewelry. While this is a weak case because she returns the property shortly thereafter (and--spoiler alert--she and Andrew marry for real in the end), these facts are probably enough to satisfy the test for false pretenses.

Bonus: As mentioned in the movie, marriage fraud is a federal offense. Under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(c), you cannot enter into a marriage "for the purpose of evading any provision of the immigration laws . . . ." The penalty is imprisonment for no more than five years and a fine up to $250,000. A separate provision also makes it a crime to create a business to evade immigration laws (think mail-order brides).


Monday, June 15, 2009

Pushing Daisies: Swimming With the Fishes (Almost)

Pushing Daisies: Kerplunk
(originally aired June 13, 2009)

Shane Trickle is having an affair with his sister-in-law Coral Ramona, who is one half of the Aquadolls---a synchronized swimming sister duo. After Shane arranges for Bubba the Shark to eat Coral's sister, Coral's bitter rivals---the Darling Mermaid Darlings---take her place as the headlining show. Shane is not pleased that Coral is not getting her moment in the water and, after a speech confessing to the initial murder and expressing his desire to kill the Darling Mermaid Darlings, Shane throws a wired microphone into the tank where the Darling Mermaid Darlings are swimming. But before the microphone hits the water, Olive catches the microphone in a net and saves the day.

Issue: Aside from murder, did Shane commit a crime?

Law: Murder is the intentional killing of another person. Attempted murder is an act that is a substantial step toward completing an underlying offense, with the intent to commit the underlying offense.

Analysis: Shane likely committed attempted murder. From his speech, Shane had the requisite intent to murder the Darling Sisters Darling. His substantial step was throwing the microphone into the water, believing it would electrocute (and kill) the swimming sisters. Because Shane had the intent to commit the underlying crime of murder and he took a substantial step toward committing that murder, he is likely guilty of attempted murder (even though Olive thwarted his efforts at the very last minute).

Bonus: For purposes of this analysis, I assumed the microphone in the water would produce a sufficient electrical current to kill the sisters. But what if the microphone was not that powerful or, unknown to Shane, was turned off? He'd still likely be guilty of attempted murder because he had the specific intent to murder at the time he took the step of throwing the microphone into the water.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up: Watch Out For Flying Canes

Up (2009)

Carl Fredricksen is old and living alone in the house he shared with his recently deceased wife, Elie. The neighborhood around the Fredricksen house has changed over the years, particularly since a development company purchased all of the surrounding land and started building around the Fredricksen lot. Mr. Fredricksen refuses to sell his house due to the significance it played in the life he shared with his departed wife.

One day Mr. Fredricksen sees a construction truck driving near the front of his house. The truck driver accidentally strikes the Fredricksen mailbox, knocking it slightly off its axis. Concerned that the driver will destroy the mailbox--it has sentimental value to Mr. Fredricksen, Mr. Fredricksen maneuvers over and struggles with the truck driver who is trying to set the mailbox back on its post. Threatened and confused, Mr. Fredricksen hits the truck driver over the head with his cane, grabs the mailbox, and scampers back inside his house. The truck driver falls to the ground and has a bleeding (but superficial) wound on his head, which is attended to after witnesses call for medical and law enforcement assistance.

Issue: Did Mr. Fredricksen commit a crime?

Law: A battery is an intentional, harmful, nonconsensual touching of another.

Analysis: Maybe. This is a clear case of battery: Mr. Fredricksen intentionally struck the truck driver with his cane. To make matters worse, the driver had an actual injury and there were many witnesses to this incident. But what about a defense?

Mr. Fredricksen could argue that he was acting to defend his property that he believed the truck driver was trying to steal or otherwise damage. A rightful property owner may use non-deadly force to repel someone trying to take his property if he reasonably believes such force is necessary to stop the dispossession, which must be imminent and unlawful. Because Mr. Fredricksen reasonably believed the truck driver was trying to take his property and he did not use deadly force, he may be able to convince a sympathetic finder of fact (i.e., a jury) to accept this defense. He would also have to show that he was under a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that the truck driver was trying to unlawfully take his mailbox. It's not an insurmountable hurdle for Mr. Fredricksen, but it's not clear that he was acting completely reasonable in the situation.

Barring a jury accepting this excuse, Mr. Fredricksen committed a textbook battery.

I suppose one strategy would be to get Mr. Fredricksen declared mental incapacitated, which might make any criminal case go away since the truck driver was not seriously injured. But in the film Up, it is unclear what happened in court. We saw Mr. Fredricksen respond to his court summons and then we saw that Mr. Fredricksen was forced to leave his house and move to the Shady Oaks retirement community. Based on the smiling faces on the cover of the community's brochure, I assume this was not a state-run facility, so I'm confused as to why or how a court would force someone out of his house and into a private retirement community. But Mr. Fredricksen avoided jail time, so I guess that's a good thing.


Glee: The Downside of Extorting Your Students

Glee: Pilot
(aired May 19, 2009)

As the new head of the high school glee club, Will Schuester needs to recruit new students to join the club. His appeal to members of the football team is unsuccessful, so he plants marijuana on Finn, a student on the football team with a vocal talent for classic rock ballads. Mr. Schuester tells Finn that he won't report the marijuana possession (and place it on his permanent record) if Finn agrees to sing in the glee club. Finn denies possessing the marijuana but reluctantly agrees to Mr. Schuester's request.

Issue: Did Mr. Schuester commit a crime?

Law: Extortion is the obtaining of goods or services from a person by coercive means.

Analysis: Oh yes. Mr. Schuester planted drugs on Finn and threatened to report him if Finn did not do what Mr. Schuester wanted. These facts alone are enough to show extortion, but the offense is even clearer in this case because Mr. Schuester was also able to use his authority as a teacher to compel Finn's compliance.

Bonus: At common law, extortion applied only to public officials or people acting under the color of law. In most jurisdictions, extortion is now a statutory offense and applies to everyone, regardless of their official status.

Now assuming public schools existed at common law, it's arguable that Mr. Schuester was a public official, or at least acting under the color of the law, since he was a state employee and acting in that capacity at the time of this offense.


Fringe: Yes, Sir, That's My Baby

Fringe: There's More Than One of Everything
(aired May 12, 2009)

Dr. Walter Bishop's eight-year-old son, Peter, dies from a childhood illness. Dr. Bishop discovers a way to open a portal to a parallel dimension where there are duplicates of everything in Dr. Bishop's known dimension. Dr. Bishop enters the portal, finds the double of his very-much-alive son Peter, takes Peter back to Dr. Bishop's universe, and raises Peter as his own son.

Issue: Did Dr. Bishop kidnap Peter?

Law: A kidnapping is the taking or carrying away of another by force or fraud and without consent.

Likely yes. The initial issue is whether the Peter that Dr. Bishop took and raised as his own was really Dr. Bishop's son. If so, then there is likely no kidnapping. But this is not the case: Dr. Bishop's actual son--let's call him Peter Alpha--died. The Peter Dr. Bishop took from a parallel dimension--let's call him Peter Beta--is a different person, and because Dr. Bishop was not Peter Beta's father, he likely did not have consent to take Peter Beta.

Peter Beta was taken by Dr. Bishop into another dimension and, as seen in the finale of Fringe, did not even know that he came from another dimension, which suggests Dr. Bishop tricked Peter Beta into coming with him. This deception is sufficient to show fraud. So, since Peter Beta was not Dr. Bishop's actual son, Dr. Bishop did not have consent to take Peter Beta, and Dr. Bishop used deception to take Peter Beta, Dr. Bishop kidnapped Peter Beta.

And presumably, Peter Beta's face is listed on the registry of the beta version of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.


Lost: A Fire in the Jungle

Lost: The Incident
(aired May 13, 2009)

Ilana and Bram are walking through the woods. They spot their friend Jacob's cabin and go inside. There they discover that Jacob has been gone for some time but a squatter has been living in the house. To prevent the squatter from using the house, they set fire to the cabin. It burns to the ground.

Law: Arson is the malicious burning of the dwelling of another.

Issue: Did Ilana and Bram commit arson?

Analysis: Most likely. Unless they burned the house with Jacob's consent (and so far there's no evidence of that), then the burning was malicious. Now, the interesting question is who owns the cabin. Horace was killed during The Purge, and assuming he did not have a will, his son Ethan likely inherited the cabin (under the general rule of intestate inheritance). Ethan also died, presumably without an heir. The cabin would then revert (or "escheat") back to the government of the Island, which I'll assume is Jacob. Therefore, Jacob was the rightful owner of the cabin by the time Ilana and Bram showed up.

Alternatively, if Jacob occupied the cabin contrary to the true owner's wishes, then he could have become the rightful owner after a sufficient period of time passed ("adverse possession" for those playing along at home, or "squatter's rights" for the laity). Since the Purge happened in about 1992 and the burning occurred in 2007, Jacob would have had to adversely possess the cabin for 15 years. Most periods are from 12 to 15 years; therefore, the sufficient period likely lapsed by the time of this incident and Jacob was the owner of the cabin when it burned down.

But the owner of the cabin does not matter for arson purposes, so long as the person committing the arson is neither the owner of the property nor committed the arson with the consent of the true owner.

Bonus: As with all things Lost, we assume the common law applies.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Time Travel: A Primer

After viewing the new Star Trek film last night, my film
companions expressed frustration with all of the time travel going on in J.J. Abrams productions, i.e., Lost. To help explain things, I quickly sketched out my interpretations of the different forms of time travel. They are reproduced below, with my annotations.

The first slide shows two states of time. No. 1 represents our concept of linear time, or "Our Reality." There is a beginning and an end, nothing changes, everything moves forward.

No. 2 represents what I call the "Back to the Future Model." The first line is reality before time travel. The second line is after time travel, with X marking the point where history changed and created an offshoot timeline. So while normally time would go from A to B, with the offshoot, time travels from A to C.Slide two tries to make sense of Lost. No. 3.A represents Daniel Faraday's First Theory, or "Whatever happened, happened." Time moves from A to B and even if you try to change the future through time travel, the universe will self-correct and move you back on track to B. Remember the man with the red sneakers.
Note: For simplicity purposes, I'm not explaining the part of this theory where people in the past have always been in the past to help shape the future. This would naturally follow from the concept that everything in the past has already happened the way it happened (i.e., there can be nothing new in the past) and the future is always the same.

Before he died, Daniel issued a Second Theory, where there are variables that can change time, also known as the "I'm going to detonate a hydrogen bomb and destroy the Island" theory (No. 3.B). Here, you can change an event in the past and create a new timeline for the future. Recall the "Back to the Future Model."


Finally, slide three shows time as portrayed in the new Star Trek film (No. 4). Time is, as we understand it, linear. Someone (Spock A) can travel into the past, create a black hole, and travel into the past of a parallel universe. Younger Spock B exists in the parallel universe and nothing that happens to him will impact Spock A (i.e,. you can kill Spock B at birth but Spock 1 will still exist).

Any questions?


Friday, May 8, 2009

Lost: There's a Storm Coming

Lost: Follow the Leader
(aired May 6, 2009)

Facts: An imminent "incident" is about occur on a certain Island. As a small group is trying to flee to safety, they gather up all supplies they can carry. One person, Hurley, secretly takes extra food rations to increase the chances he and his compatriots will survive the "incident." He heads off to meet up with the others. On his way, he meets Smokey and must be judged for taking the extra food.

Law:A larceny is the taking of another person's property with the intent to permanently deprive the person of the property.

Issue: Does the "incident" excuse Hurley's theft?

Analysis: Possibly. It's clear that Hurley committed a larceny because he took the food that did not belong to him with the intent to permanently deprive its rightful owner of it. But the defense of necessity may excuse his action.

Necessity excuses some criminal conduct if there is an imminent danger and the harm from the conduct would be less than the harm from the imminent danger. Hurley would have to show that he stole the food to help his friends survive the impending disaster. I think he can do that but at the same time his taking of food from others could then cause an equal harm (i.e., starvation) to the rightful owners of the food. So for Hurley's sake, I hope Smokey is being lenient that day.

Bonus: A good example of this defense is Jean Valjean's incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Arguably, the starvation is a less harm than the property theft to the bread maker. Of course then we wouldn't have had fun songs to sing over a dreary musical.


Monday, May 4, 2009

Gossip Girl: The Case of the Gifted Bracelet

Gossip Girl: The Wrath of Con
(aired May 4, 2009)

Lily gives her daughter Serena an early graduation gift: an antique bracelet that has been in the family for generations. Serena is reluctant to accept the gift because of secrets she's been keeping from her mother, but she relents, accepts the gift, and puts on the bracelet.

When Lily finds out about Serena's secret, Lily tells Serena to stop her conduct. Serena, being a rebellious and highly strung teenager, disobeys her mother. After Lily discovers Serena's misbehavior, Lily reports to the police that Serena stole her bracelet. Serena is arrested and waiting for her mother to bail her out.

Law: A larceny is the taking of another person's property with the intent to permanently deprive the person of the property.

Issue: Did Serena steal the bracelet?

Analysis: Probably not. Larceny is a specific intent crime, meaning the perpetrator must have a specific kind of intent above the general intent to commit the crime. In the case of larceny, that means the perpetrator must have intent to take the property (general intent) but also have intent to permanently deprive the property holder of the property (specific intent).

Here, Serena lacked any intent to steal the bracelet because she only acquired possession of the bracelet as a gift from Lily. Even if Lily wanted to press charges against Serena, Serena's good faith belief that the bracelet was a gift is sufficient to negate the argument that Serena had the specific intent to permanently deprive Lily of the bracelet.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Lost: Shot in the Back

Lost: The Variable
(aired April 29, 2009)


Facts: Daniel sneaks into a hostile camp site. Daniel is holding a gun in his hand and starts shooting at the ground when one of the campers sees him. Daniel demands to speak with Ellie. Richard walks out to see Daniel and tells him that Ellie is not available. Daniel does not believe him, points his gun at Richard, and says Richard has until the count of three to produce Ellie. Before Daniel says "three" or Richard can calm Daniel down, someone shoots Daniel in the back. Daniel collapses, apparently dead. The shooter is Ellie.

Issue: Is Ellie guilty of murdering Daniel?

Law: A murder is the intentional, premeditated killing of another person, but a person may use deadly force in the defense of another if she reasonably believes such force is necessary to stop the imminent use of unlawful deadly force by the other person.

Analysis: Maybe. Based on her aiming the gun at Daniel, it appears that Ellie intended to kill (or at least inflict grievous bodily harm) on Daniel. And since you can't have murder without a dead person, let's assume Daniel is actually dead--with Lost, you never can be sure. So Ellie murdered Daniel. End of story, right?

Wrong! Ellie may be able to claim self-defense, which is a complete defense to murder (i.e., she's not guilty). Under common law, one could only use self-defense to protect another if the two were in a special relationship with each other: parent-child, master-servant, husband-wife. Some jurisdictions have eliminated the special relationship requirement, while others retain it. We don't know what laws (if any) apply to the Island so mark a question mark next to this element.

With the remaining elements, it looks like Ellie can prove self-defense. From her perspective (and anyone else watching), it was reasonable to believe that Daniel was threatening Richard with deadly force. (It does not matter if Daniel was never really going to shoot Richard, only that Ellie could reasonably believe he was going to do so.) And Daniel's countdown was probably enough to show the threat to Richard was imminent. So, it appears that by exercising self-defense Ellie could have gotten away with murdering her own son. No word on whether Smokey is as forgiving.

Bonus: If Ellie only proved only some of the self-defense elements, then no defense is available to her at common law. Some states, though, allow an "imperfect self-defense," meaning you can downgrade a murder to a manslaughter even if you can't establish all of the elements of self-defense. (See here for why that change matters.)


Monday, April 27, 2009

Gossip Girl: What's Yours is Ours

Gossip Girl: Southern Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
(aired April 27, 2009)

Serena goes on a Spanish holiday with her friend Poppy and Poppy's boyfriend Gabriel. While in Spain, Serena and Gabriel get married after a night of drinking. Serena returns to the United States regretting what happened, but soon Gabriel follows her and they begin to date. But Gabriel is still dating Poppy so he can keep her business contacts for his telecommunications start-up company. Poppy finds out and Gabriel and Poppy break up. Without Poppy's contacts, though, Gabriel is concerned he'll have to go work for his father's tobacco business. Serena proposes Gabriel solicit her mother and other rich friends to invest in his new company. He does with great success.

In reality, there is no company and Gabriel and Poppy plan to keep the money for themselves. Before they could skip down together, Gabriel takes all of the money, including $500,000 from Poppy. Poppy tells Serena everything that happened.

Issue: Are Gabriel and Poppy liable for the same or different offenses? If so, which ones?

A conspiracy is an agreement between at least two people to commit an offense, and all parties to the agreement are liable for the acts of other conspirators if those acts are within the scope and objective of the conspiracy. False pretenses is the obtaining of another's property through a false representation of an existing fact.

Analysis: Likely the same. Gabriel and Poppy entered into an agreement to solicit investment funds for a company that does not exist. At a minimum they are both guilty of conspiracy to commit false pretenses. Because Gabriel, in furtherance of the conspiracy, actually obtained the funds through his false representation, he is also likely guilty of false pretenses. Poppy assisted in Gabriel's acts, and therefore, she is likely liable under accomplice liability (think: aiding and abetting).

And even though Poppy told Serena everything that happened, that doesn't change anything. While a conspirator can withdraw from a conspiracy (and avoid liability for subsequent acts), she can only withdraw from the conspiracy by telling her co-conspirator, Gabriel, that she was leaving the conspiracy. It does not appear she withdrew from the conspiracy, as seen in her apparent surprise at Gabriel's double-crossing of her. Let that be a lesson to you potential conspirators out there!

Bonus: Here's a fun fact to share at cocktail parties. Under the common law, a conspiracy required only an agreement to commit an offense. Most jurisdictions now treat conspiracy as a two-element offense: (1) an agreement to commit a criminal offense and (2) an overt act in furtherance
of the agreement. Even under modern criminal law, Gabriel and Poppy are guilty of conspiracy because the committed an overt act when they tricked Serena into introducing Gabriel to the investors at the cocktail party.

As an added bonus, consider the following. Gabriel and Poppy can be guilty of both conspiracy to commit false pretenses and false pretenses because conspiracy offenses do not merge with a completed underlying offense. This is different from the two other inchoate crimes--solicitation and attempt--where you can only be guilty of the completed offense or the completed underlying offense.


30 Rock: The Black Widow

30 Rock: The Ones
(aired April 23, 2009)

Facts: Jack proposes to marry Elisa but Elisa has a secret. In confidence, she tells her friend Liz that years ago she killed her husband in a fit of rage after she caught him having an affair with another woman. Elisa was never convicted because they could not find an unbiased jury. After a night bundled up with her Slanket, Liz tells Jack about Elisa's past. Jack is concerned that he's marrying a murderess.

Issue: Did Elisa murder her first husband?

Law: Generally speaking, murder is the intentional killing (or intent to inflict grievous bodily harm that results in the death) of another person. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing, committed in the "heat of passion" based on sufficient provocation.

Analysis: Likely not. Although she could not find an unbiased jury to decide her guilt, Elisa is probably guilty only of voluntary manslaughter. Traditionally, finding your spouse in flagrante delicto with someone else can create sufficient passion to provoke the jilted spouse into murdering her husband, provided there is no "cooling off" period and there is a link between the provocation, emotion/passion, and killing.

Elisa's case is a good example of voluntary manslaughter brought on by a cheating husband. Note, though, that if Elisa knew about the affair and killed her husband at a later date, she would likely be guilty of murder as she would have had a sufficient period of time to "cool off." The gist of voluntary manslaughter is in a fit of passion you commit homicide.

Bonus: And before you think this means Elisa walks away, voluntary manslaughter is still a felony and can lead to a long period of confinement, albeit far less than in the case of murder. For example, if Elisa had committed the offense in Virginia, her voluntary manslaughter would lead to a Class 5 felony conviction, which carries a sentence of one to ten years. However, if a Virginia jury convicted her of first-degree murder, that is a Class 2 felony and carries a sentence of twenty years to life. And they don't let you wear "What the Frak" t-shirts in prison.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Observe & Report

Observe & Report (2009)

Facts: Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security at a local mall, has made several attempts to go out on a date with mall shop girl, Brandi. After Brandi is the victim of a flasher, Barnhardt escorts Brandi back to her vehicle in the mall parking lot. He asks Brandi out on a date and while initially hesitant, she ultimately agrees.

When Ronnie picks up Brandi at home, Brandi has already been drinking. They go to a bar where Brandi consumes two more drinks and four shots of tequila. Upon request, Ronnie also gives Brandi his bottle of medication used to treat his bipolar condition. Brandi takes three pills.

By the time Ronnie returns Brandi home, she is severely intoxicated and Ronnie has to help Brandi into her house. Brandi vomits and Ronnie kisses her. Eventually the two engage in sexual intercourse even though Brandi vomits again and is unresponsive. During the act, Ronnie asks if he should continue and Brandi mumbles, "Why are you stopping, motherf---er?" They complete the sexual act and Ronnie goes home. The next day Brandi says nothing about the night to Ronnie.

Issue: Did Ronnie rape Brandi?

A rape is the nonconsensual sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Consent can be negated if the woman is unable to give consent due to a physical or mental impairment. Similarly, consent can be negated if the man uses force or fraud to obtain consent.

Analysis: Most likely yes. Because it is clear they had intercourse, the real issue here, as with most acquaintance rape (or "date rape") is over whether Brandi consented to sex with Ronnie. Due to her severe intoxication--as evidenced by her vomiting, flashes of consciousness, and inability to walk on her own, she likely could not form the necessary consent.

Ronnie could argue that he believed she consented to sex--as seen in her reaction when Ronnie stopped the sexual act; however, it was likely unreasonable for him to believe she could consent to sex with him because he was well-aware of her diminished capacity. (This defense is called "mistake of fact," but it is unavailable in the case of rape if the mistake is unreasonable.) Ronnie's case is also weak because he purchased the alcohol for Brandi, he gave her his prescription drugs (a federal crime all on its own), and he has a history of sexual interest in Brandi.

Bonus: This scene caused generated some controversy because of the apparent rape of Brandi. Here's an ABC News article about the debate. And here's my take on this film: even without this scene, it was still pretty lousy.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Introduction

Have you ever watched a television show or movie and wondered whether the fictional people on screen are committing a crime? Then this blog is for you. Each week I'll present the facts from whatever I happen to watch and give you the law and a brief analysis of whether I think any crime occurred. If have your own comments or take on the issue, share them in the comments.

To avoid any state favoritism or anyone using my comments for legal advice (which you should never, ever do), I'll use American criminal common law (unless otherwise noted) for these issues.