23 October 2012

Superheroes Among Us

by Brian Panucci, Staff Writer

How would the law handle big-budget movie superheroes like Batman or the Avengers if they existed in reality? While Commissioner Gordon may have turned a blind eye when Batman pummeled the bad guy, legally Batman would be guilty of battery. In fact, despite their costumes and gadgets, these superhero vigilantes would be subject to the same laws as any common citizen.  As vigilantes are not authorized by law or the government, superheroes would frequently be found guilty of obstructing law enforcement.
© 2005 Warner Bros. Studio
Surprise! You may be battered without an assault.
Luckily for Batman and the like, the law does provide a few defenses for superheroes.  Crime fighters could lean on the criminal law principles of justification in the areas of defense of others and crime prevention. Justification occurs when the commission of a proscribed act is viewed by society as justified and hence not appropriate for criminal punishment. Defense of others is justifiable to protect a third person when the third person would be justified in using force to protect himself against the injury he believes to be threatened and the actor believes that his intervention is necessary for the protection of such person. Crime prevention is a type of justification where the use of non-deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or another is permitted. Batman attacking the Joker because he has a knife to the throat of Rachel Dawes would fall into both of these categories of justification.

Vigilantes such as Batman who act on their own are open to great liability; however, a group like The Avengers are part of a covert government program and subject to different laws. Their government involvement would make it more likely they could escape prosecution for the damage they had caused. Under Pennsylvania stature, no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person. So smash away, Hulk.

© Associated Press
Although these superheroes are safely contained within the big screen, the rise of superhero movies being produced by big Hollywood studios has spawned a few impersonators. Men like Mark Williams of Petoskey, Michigan have made news for their attempts to mimic their big screen idols. Williams has been arrested twice for interfering with police at the scene of a crime, most recently on Sept. 29, 2012. Dressed as Batman, Williams would listen to a police scanner and arrive to assist the authorities. The problem was Williams did not provide much help and faced charges due to his interference.

Becoming a vigilante crime fighter is dangerous, expensive and could lead to criminal liability. Without the funding of a government program or a large private fortune, it would be difficult for any citizen to seriously undertake the job of crime fighter. As Batman himself said, the difference between a standard vigilante and himself is he isn’t wearing hockey pads.