There will always be a place in my heart for Back to the Future. Who doesn’t like saying “88 miles per hour,” or “1.21 gigawatts”?
But Great Scott, Doc Brown would be a wanted man in at least two different centuries. Blowing up trains and promising terrorists you will make a nuclear bomb have substantial legal consequences. There is no “science experiment” defense.
Old California Justice is Really Heavy
There is little doubt that California Governor George Stoneman would have sent troops to capture Doc Brown after stealing and blowing up a train in the name of science.
There were just too many witnesses in Hill Valley who watched Marty & Doc flee the scene after the fight with Mad Dog Tannen to not connect the train robbery to them. Exhibit A to the fact people knew Marty McFly was involved was the fact that Shonash Ravine was renamed Eastwood Ravine (Marty McFly’s alias in 1885). Connecting the dots to Doc Brown would not be hard, especially if anyone found Doc’s not-to-scale model in his shop.
The most on point California law to prosecute Doc Brown was not enacted until 1891, six years after the destruction of Locomotive 131 at Eastwood Ravine. California Penal Code § 218 specifically addresses “train wrecking” and “acts intended to wreck.” The law states:
Every person who unlawfully throws out a switch, removes a rail, or places any obstruction on any railroad with the intention of derailing any passenger, freight or other train, car or engine, or who unlawfully places any dynamite or other explosive material or any other obstruction upon or near the track of any railroad with the intention of blowing up or derailing any such train, car or engine, or who unlawfully sets fire to any railroad bridge or trestle, over which any such train, car or engine must pass with the intention of wrecking such train, car or engine, is guilty of a felony, and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life without possibility of parole.
Cal Pen Code § 218.
There is no question that Doc Brown and his co-conspirator Marty McFly threw the train switch with the intent of destroying Locomotive 131 at Shonash Ravine. If Cal Pen Code § 218 had been in effect in 1885, Doc and Marty both would have been charged under this statute.
Every person who maliciously does either of the following is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170, or imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year:
(a) Removes, displaces, injures, or destroys any part of any railroad, whether for steam or horse cars, or any track of any railroad, or any branch or branchway, switch, turnout, bridge, viaduct, culvert, embankment, station house, or other structure or fixture, or any part thereof, attached to or connected with any railroad.
(b) Places any obstruction upon the rails or track of any railroad, or of any switch, branch, branchway, or turnout connected with any railroad.
The law was enacted in 1872 and is still in effect in 2013. The annotated code further states:
Under Pen C § 587, making it a crime for any person to maliciously place an obstruction on the rails or track of any railroad, the intent required for a violation is the intent to place an obstruction on the rails or tracks of the railroad, and the malice required is that which would negate an accidental and unintended obstruction. Thus, in a prosecution for violation of the statute, the court’s refusal to instruct that violation required specific intent was not error. People v. Bohmer (1975, Cal App 4th Dist) 46 Cal App 3d 185, 120 Cal Rptr 136, 1975 Cal App LEXIS 1765, cert den (1975) 423 US 990, 46 L Ed 2d 308, 96 S Ct 402, 1975 US LEXIS 3463.
Point of No Return to Court
Doc Brown and Marty McFly placed the DeLorean on the train tracks with the intention of pushing the Time Machine to the uncompleted tracks at Shonash Ravine. These facts should be enough to warrant charges under Cal Pen Code § 587. While this 1872 statute is not as on point as Cal Pen Code § 218 for the offense of train wrecking, Doc Brown could be charged and convicted of violating § 587 in 1885.
The DeLorean’s destruction by the freight train creates a legal paradox that spins “proximate cause” in Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad right on its turntable.
Here are the legally relevant, and temporal, facts:
Marty McFly & Doc Brown placed the DeLorean on the train tracks in 1885
Marty & Doc intended to destroy Locomotive 131 in 1885
Marty returned to 1985 on same train tracks after the destruction of Locomotive 131
DeLorean destroyed by freight train in 1985
Would there be criminal liability in 1985 for the DeLorean being run over the freight train? Was there any danger of a train derailment or explosion? Cal Pen Code § 218 and § 587 are still in effect, thus creating interesting legal analysis.
Marty and Doc had the intent to destroy Locomotive 131 in 1885. They did not the malicious intent for the DeLorean to be hit by a train in 1985.
Would the intent of the 1885 conspiracy transfer to 1985 as one continuous event under the law for violating Cal Pen Code § 218?
The Hill Valley District Attorney could legally argue yes, since time was relative to Marty.
McFly was traveling in a fusion powered time machine on train tracks. It is foreseeable that a train could also be traveling on the same train tracks as the DeLorean at the same time.
However, there would be a very strong statute of limitations defense against § 218, because the events of 1885 were 100 years in the past, long past the time to prosecute Doc & Marty for the destruction of Locomotive 131 (Never mind the fact the witnesses were all dead and the DA would have to rely on 100 year old documents). There was no intent to derail a train in 1985, thus making the issue one of reckless driving, negligence by placing a car with a fusion powered device from the future on active railroad tracks, or possibly a violation of § 587(b) by placing the DeLorean on train tracks as an obstruction, if malice could be implied by the act of placing the car on the train tracks.