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.)