Many people hear the call of service and want to wear body armor and a cape. However, this is a profoundly bad idea. The law strongly disfavors ordinary citizens becoming vigilantes. Moreover, we have no known aliens with amazing powers, individuals enhanced by government experimentation or human hybrids with other humanoid species flying around major US cities.
With that said, who doesn’t like comic book super heroes? And for all the super lawyers out there, what legal issues are there in fighting crime after being given a magical amulet?
Vigilantism is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as, “The act of a citizen who takes the law into his or her own hands by apprehending and punishing suspected criminals.”
“Vigilantism” is also defined under case law as “unreasonable self-help action by citizens that tends to disrupt the administration of the criminal justice system.” State v. Johnson, 1998 NMCA 19, P 15, 124 N.M. 647, 954 P.2d 79.
So, what does this mean for all of our comic book super heroes? Let’s review the different types of heroes to see who is a vigilante vs those engaging in law enforcement.
Criminals Are a Cowardly Lot…
Comic characters who take up arms and hunt criminals are with little question vigilantes. Examples on one extreme would be the Punisher and the other Batman. Both lost family members and took up arms to stop criminals.
There are obvious differences between the two, besides Marvel and DC. Punisher kills, where Batman has rules against killing (unless you are Darkside in Final Crisis). However, while the Punisher is not operating under any color of law besides avenging “justice” by killing criminals, Batman at least has tacit consent by Gotham City’s use of the Bat Signal to call for Batman’s help (perhaps showing Batman is deputized by local law enforcement).
Brilliant, Well-Funded & Armed
Some of these characters are defined in role playing games are “high tech wonders” and others “altered humans.” The key is whether they are using technology or has science changed their bodies.
For Stark his power is an advanced body armor that serves as a weapons platform; Pym his “Pym Particles” who he used to shirk or grew, depending on the decade and which identity Pym was using to fight crime (Ant Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellow Jacket, or Wasp).
Granted, Batman could also fall in this category given his utility belt and advanced weapons. However, Batman uses more of his body through training as a weapon, where heroes such as Iron Man have built full blown body armor.
Iron Man falls in an interesting category, because the character was originally his alter ego’s body guard. Additionally, with Tony Stark being a Cold War weapons manufacturer, Marvel had a character arguably who was different than a vigilante. The issue would turn on whether Iron Man was operating as Stark’s body guard or going beyond such services (or a private citizen developing his own foreign policy arguably during the Armor Wars, something else frowned upon under the 1799 Logan Act).
Granted, Tony Stark eventually went public with his secret identity and held such positions as Secretary of Defense and Director of SHIELD. Under these positions, Stark was acting within the “police powers” of the Government.
Government Sponsored Heroes
Pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress can “raise and support armies…” In a world where villains (especially if sponsored by a foreign power) can blow up buildings, Congress raising an army of super humans would not be out of the realm of possibility.
These heroes might have Posse Comitatus Act issues without specific legislation, but if authorized by Congress, would be the most “legal” form for a super hero to be operating within the law.
State-sponsored heroes would also need to follow the US Constitution and our laws on search, seizure and arrest. With that said, how many times in the comics has a super hero read a villain their Miranda rights?
A spin on this would be Green Lantern. While not authorized by Congress, Hal Jordan was selected by a Green Power Ring created by the Guardians of the Universe to protect Sector 2814. In essence, Green Lantern is a cosmic police officer. While the Guardians are free to create whatever selection criteria for the Green Lantern Corps, there would still be jurisdictional issues of a “alien” government setting law enforcement terms within the United States (or any country on Earth).
However, if a giant red alien shows up and starts eating buses with school children, elected officials probably will let that detail slide.
You’re Not Just Anyone
Superman arguably started out as a vigilante for a brief period of time, but since he at first represented “truth, justice and the American Way,” he was a symbol of working within the system.
This was also evidenced in such classics as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (where Superman worked for the American government, which had banned heroes) and New Frontiers (which also banned heroes).
On the flip side, if a “person” can jump tall buildings in a single bound and is faster than a speeding bullet, society would accept his help. I mean, who would stop him?
If There Were Heroes…
If there were super heroes, the world of Powers probably would be the most on point on what that society would look like, complete with fans treating the “powers” like sports figures or movie stars. There would be regulation if not an outright ban on being a hero, because society would not tolerate mega-humans blowing up schools or throwing cars at people.
However, we will discuss Who Killed Retro-Girl another time.