I ain’t afraid of no ghost, but how about false imprisonment?
The 1984 film Ghostbusters tells the story of private individuals who hunt, trap and “contain” ghosts haunting people.
Would there be any liability or the ability for surviving family members to recover on behalf of their deceased and imprisoned family members?
Under New York law, a “person is guilty of unlawful imprisonment in the first degree when he restrains another person under circumstances which expose the latter to a risk of serious physical injury.” NY CLS Penal § 135.10.
Additionally, a “person is guilty of unlawful imprisonment in the second degree when he restrains another person.” NY CLS Penal § 135.05.
By way of comparison, California requires the following to be proven for false imprisonment:
1. A person intentionally [and unlawfully] restrained, confined, or detained another person, compelling [him] [her] to stay or go somewhere;
2. The other person did not consent to the restraint, confinement, or detention; and
3. The restraint, confinement or detention was accomplished by violence or menace.
Both states require a person be restrained in someway without that person’s consent.
The issue is simple:
Is a ghost a person subject to the protections of state and Federal law or a “former person” and thus not subject to being protected from false imprisonment?
Let’s review possible sources of what might give ghosts “personhood”:
The 14th Amendment, Section 1, to the United States Constitution, states:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
NY CLS Const Art I, § 11.
No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws of this state or any subdivision thereof. No person shall, because of race, color, creed or religion, be subjected to any discrimination in his or her civil rights by any other person or by any firm, corporation, or institution, or by the state or any agency or subdivision of the state.
Does death end citizenship under the 14th Amendment, thus equal protection under the law, in our case specifically the prohibition of false imprisonment of living persons? Or does citizenship and the right to equal protection under the law begin at birth and continue for all eternity? Does the same apply to being a “person” under Article § 11 of the New York State Constitution?
There is no question the framers of the US Constitution, the 14th Amendment or the New York Constitution contemplated the law applying to undead individuals with rights similar to living persons. To be blunt, the dead do not come back to vote, buy property or renew their driver’s license.
With that said, our society does not embrace the idea of deceased citizens no longer being citizens. We have monuments for national heroes, honor those who have passed with folded flags and conduct burial ceremonies for those who have passed.
Death arguably does not end citizenship, however there is an interesting issue with the application of the 14th Amendment because of the text stating “…State wherein they reside.” The word “reside” is defined “to live in a place.” Additionally, Black’s Law Dictionary defines “resident” as “a person who lives in a particular place.” Ghosts, by the very fact they are deceased, do not “live” anywhere, unless one counts where their bodies are buried as residences. That might work for voting in Chicago, but ask yourself, how much mail is delivered to tombstones? Moreover, haunting is fundamentally different than living, because 1) ghosts do not have any basic bodily functions showing life, such as requiring food or oxygen and 2) haunting involves tormenting the living.
This is not to say the dead are without any legal protections, as seen in wrongful death cases brought by a victim’s survivors. However, the spirit of the deceased victim did not retain counsel or file a lawsuit; the living family member brought the lawsuit. Moreover, the dead do not give testimony at a trial, unless it was recorded before death.
Nevertheless, there are laws that apply directly to the dead.
An entire body of law is dedicated to wills and trusts, which focus on the intent of the living for the distribution of their property and assets after their death.
Additionally, there are cases prohibiting the desecration of a corpse. Early New York cases have held living family members have the right to have the corpse of a family buried unmutilated from unauthorized autopsies. Foley v Phelps 1 App Div 551  and Darcy v Presbyterian Hosp. in City of N.Y., 202 NY 259 .
What do the cases of wills and corpse desecration show us? That there are strong arguments that the Ghostbusters are not violating the civil rights of the dead by imprisoning them.
The law is designed to protect the interests of the living. At best, laws prohibiting the desecration of a corpse are designed to bury the dead intact.
Given the above, it is unlikely there is any argument that trapping and containing ghosts could result in a case of false imprisonment. Moreover, Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “person” as a “human being”; ghosts are no longer human beings. As such, it is a legal impossibility for the Ghostbusters to be falsely imprisoning a ghost (a former human being) under the law. Additionally, there is a strong argument that the Ghostbusters are acting in the defense of others from malcontent spirits and effectively acting as exterminators of life-threatening entities.
Property damage from crossing the streams on the other hand….