The People v. Batman

By: Sam Laughlin

Most criminal lawyers and law enforcement officers, on at least some level, probably wish to be Batman.  He has no jurisdiction, endless resources, and absolutely no bureaucratic red tape.  He is justice personified.  But is such justice legal when it is at the hands of a possibly insane vigilante billionaire who dresses like a bat?  More importantly, were Batman a real, live force swooping through nighttime city streets, how would a city prosecutor manage a case against him in the event he was arrested?

For the sake of such a hypothetical, it helps to restrict the source material.  Batman has, after all, been around for almost seventy years, had several television shows, different movie franchises, and endless comic book and novel adaptations.  To keep the discussion grounded as close to reality as possible, I will only analyze the facts as related in the recent Christopher Nolan films.  Since those films were shot around Chicago, and you can see Illinois plates on most of the vehicles in the movies, let’s just say Gotham is in Illinois.  To add to the hypothetical grounding, let’s assume Batman was arrested on a city street by a police officer not in the furtherance of any crime fighting.  He was arrested for simply being Batman.

Yeah... probably not legal.

There are a number of possibilities for charges to Mr. Bruce Wayne: destruction of property, obstruction of justice, assault and battery, unlawful use of a military-grade vehicle in city streets – too many to mention.  But is the act of vigilantism, itself, a crime?

Most jurisdictions across the country recognize the legitimacy of citizen’s arrest and pose no statute directly outlawing a person’s ability to capture and detain a criminal.  The Illinois statute governing citizen’s arrest takes only one sentence:  “Any person may arrest another when he has reasonable grounds to believe that an offense other than an ordinance violation is being committed.” 725 ILCS 5/107-3.  Most other jurisdictions contain a similar requirement that the crime committed be worse than a violation of misdemeanor, and the crime occur physically before the citizen crime fighter.  And, of course, most jurisdictions agree that the citizen needs to stay around for the arrest to be legal.

How does this apply to Batman?  In the films, he has performed citizen’s arrests on numerous terrorist henchmen and drug dealers, and in every case, the criminals were in the act of a serious crime.  So, check.  These crimes took place in front of Batman.  So, check.  But Batman’s method of dispatching criminals, namely beating them up, wrapping them around poles, and fleeing the scene, would bar his actions from being classified as a legal citizen’s arrest.

Without the defense of his actions classified as citizen’s arrests, most, if not all of Batman’s crime fighting, could be classified as assault and battery, since Batman’s favorite tactic is surprising criminals out of the shadows before beating them to unconsciousness.

Another “big picture” crime Batman often commits is obstruction of justice.  Most of Batman’s biggest targets are some of the city’s biggest criminal organizations.  The Illinois statute governing the crime reads:

A person obstructs justice when, with intent to prevent the apprehension or obstruct the prosecution or defense of any person, he knowingly commits any of the following acts:

(a) Destroys, alters, conceals or disguises physical evidence, plants false evidence, furnishes false information; or …
(c) Possessing knowledge material to the subject at issue, he leaves the State or conceals himself.

§ 720 ILCS 5/31-4.

Seeing how Batman constantly takes evidence from crime scenes to study and is always concealed (by being Batman), this charge could stick.  His mens rea for the first element, the “intent to prevent apprehension or obstruct the prosecution or defense,” might be lacking, as he is just trying to help the police.  Either way, he could be found in criminal contempt, as the Illinois court has found that “any conduct which is calculated to embarrass, hinder or obstruct the court in its administration of justice or lessen its authority or dignity is criminal contempt.”  People v. LaRosa, 198 Ill. App. 3d 862, 865 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist 1990).  Dressing up like a giant bat and out-policing the police force would probably be grounds for “embarrassing” the Gotham city prosecutor’s office.

Even without a truly legal defense of citizen’s arrest, Bruce Wayne’s defense attorneys would likely appeal to policy justifications to keep Batman around.  Namely, the policy is that their city is better off with the Dark Knight patrolling the city streets.  Modern day vigilantism is actually encouraged through community watch groups and organizations such as the Guardian Angels program.  The Guardian Angels patrol sections of the New York and Los Angeles, among other cities; and while membership is open to the community, the organization maintains strict regulations and guidelines to prevent their patrol squads from getting arrested, as members carry no weapons and rarely even patrol neighborhoods anymore.

Perhaps the most comparable example of a real-life Batman would be Benjamin Fodor, a.k.a., Phoenix Jones, the masked superhero who patrols the streets of Seattle.  Really… Fodor wears a black mask, bulletproof body armor, and two cans of pepper spray, and patrols various Seattle neighborhoods looking to help citizens and stop crime.  His tactics typically involve calling the police then assaulting criminals with pepper spray.  While police have begrudgingly allowed his presence, he was arrested on October 13 of this year after spraying a crowd of people dancing in a club.  Police never charged him with anything, and prosecutors are still reviewing the case.  The only resulting fallout from the incident was personal to Fodor: he lost his job teaching special needs children.

The lesson to learn for a real-life Batman falls not in the attempt at being a super hero, but in how Batman operates.  Crossing the line from passive resistance and self-defense into actively beating criminals who never-saw-it-coming could potentially land the Dark Knight in a dark cell.

This is all mostly beside the point, however.  No cell could ever keep Batman.

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