The Day Superman Broke the Law?

For our inaugural post here at Subculture for the Cultured we picked a great Silver Age Superman story, “The Day Superman Broke the Law” from Superman #153.  The story was reprinted in Showcase Presents: Superman vol. 3, which is probably easier to find than the original issue.  If you aren’t familiar with the story (and we wouldn’t blame you!), the DC wiki entry has a good plot synopsis.

The gist of the story is that a scheming small town councilman, Finch, needs Superman in jail in order to pull off a robbery. Since Superman is normally a law-abiding citizen, Finch “notices” that Superman commits various petty offenses while rescuing people from disaster and orders the sheriff to arrest Superman each time.  The story culminates with Superman and the sheriff catching Finch just as Finch hops over the state line.  Finch claims they can’t arrest him because he hasn’t committed a federal offense, but Superman goads Finch into committing one on the spot and Finch is arrested.

So did Superman really break the law? And what about this federal offense business? We’ll look at each one in turn.

I. Breaking the Sound Barrier in a Quiet Zone

In this case, Superman saved a child from being trampled by an escaped circus elephant.  In order to do so he moved so fast that he broke the sound barrier—in a hospital quiet zone.  The judge finds him “guilty as charged” but suspends the sentence because it’s Superman’s first offense.

Violating a noise ordinance is typically a strict liability offense, so it doesn’t matter whether the sonic boom was intentional, negligent, or even non-negligent.  Thus, technically, Superman did commit the offense charged.

However, Superman had a very good defense: necessity.  Often described as a “lesser of two evils” defense, necessity allows a defendant to claim that, although they committed the crime, they should not be found guilty because committing the crime was necessary in order to avoid a greater harm. In this case, a sonic boom seems a small price to pay for saving a child’s life, especially since no actual harm seems to have come from the noise.

II. Holding Up Traffic to Fix a Bridge

In the second case, Superman notices a bridge is about to fail, so he orders traffic to stop while he fixes it. Superman is charged with holding up traffic, which no one but a police officer may do. The judge finds him guilty and fines him $50, which the Sheriff pays in order to avoid Superman going to jail for failure to pay the fine.

Once again, necessity rules the day.  The bridge was actively collapsing, and a collapse could have killed several people.  Again, there’s no evidence that any of the held up drivers were upset by the delay.

III. “Smoking” in a Theater

In the third case, Superman saves a group of children from a fire in a movie theater.  After extinguishing the fire, he inhales the remaining smoke and exhales it out through the ventilation system.  He’s charged with smoking in public and convicted, but the parents of the rescued children take up a collection in order to pay the fine.

In this case one could make an argument for necessity, but we don’t think it’s (ahem) necessary because Superman didn’t actually commit the offense.  Smoking bans generally refer specifically to burning tobacco.  For example, New York’s ban defines “smoking” as “the burning of a lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe or any other matter or substance which contains tobacco.” N.Y. Pub. Health Law § 1399-N.  Even if Littledale’s smoking ordinance were more broadly written, inhaling and exhaling smoke created by someone else couldn’t violate the law or else everyone in the theater would have broken the law.

IV. “Littering”

In order to repay the parents, Superman signs autographs for them.  While tearing up a sheet of paper into slips to autograph, one of the pieces of paper falls to the ground.  Sure enough, Superman is charged with littering.  As a fourth-time offender, the judge has no choice but to order him jailed <em>without bail</em> for a jury trial.

This is hard to believe.  Litter laws generally require some degree of mental culpability, whether it be negligence, knowledge, or willfulness.  In this case, Superman didn’t meet any such standard.  But even if Littledale’s littering ordinance were strict liability there are other problems.

Holding Superman without bail is questionable. Yes, technically Superman is a (ahem) flight risk, but he’s a flight risk whether he’s released on bail or in a jail cell.  The only thing holding him in either case is his own honor, which is impeccable, at least in the Silver Age. The judge claims that it is his “sad duty” to hold Superman without bail, but setting bail is a matter of discretion for the trial court, and he could have released Superman on his own recognizance.

The other problem is the jury trial.  The right to a jury trial does not extend to “petty offenses,” which the Supreme Court has defined as those with a potential prison term of six months or less. Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1970).  We find it hard to believe that a charge of littering in Littledale carries a potential sentence of over six months in prison, even for a repeat offender.

Technically this only refers to the right to a jury; the state could offer a jury trial in petty cases if it wanted to, but jury trials are expensive.  They take longer than bench trials, and the jurors have to be paid.  We find it unlikely that the city or state would conduct a jury trial.

V. Federal Offenses and Jurisdiction

After Finch commits his robbery, the Sheriff releases Superman into his custody in order to help arrest Finch.  After Finch hops over the state line, the Sheriff says that “Since Finch has not committed a federal offense, I can’t legally arrest him!”

Alas, this is not true. “[A]t common law a law enforcement officer generally did not have authority to arrest outside his or her jurisdiction … an exception to this rule existed where the officer was in “fresh pursuit” of one who had committed a felony.” State v. Barker, 143 Wash.2d 915, 921 (2001) (en banc).  We strongly suspect that conspiring to steal a million dollars would add up to at least one felony.  Furthermore, there may be statutes in the adjoining state or a mutual law enforcement assistance program that allow out-of-state officers to make an arrest in a case like this.

Even if none of those rules counted, the Sheriff could still cross state lines and make an arrest as a private citizen. The exact circumstances under which a citizen’s arrest are allowed depends on state law, but most states allow it in the case of a felony, and Finch admitted to committing the crime.  In fact, he fled the police and was pointing a gun at Superman and the Sheriff, which are both likely felonies in and of themselves.

VI. Coin Mutilation

Now we turn from a “crime” committed by Superman to a “crime” committed by Finch.  Superman goads Finch into shooting a coin, which Superman claims gives the Sheriff the needed jurisdiction because mutilating a U.S. coin is a federal offense.

It’s true that there is a federal law against the mutilation of coins. 18 U.S.C. § 331.  The problem is that mere mutilation isn’t enough; the mutilation must be done fraudulently.  Finch shot the coin because he thought Superman was trying to hypnotize him with it, not in order to make it more valuable than it really was or to otherwise commit fraud.  So Finch may have committed a lot of crimes, but coin mutilation isn’t one of them.

VII. Conclusion

The story ends happily: Finch is arrested and Superman is acquitted (technically he is found “guilty—of being the greatest guy in the world!”). And although Superman wasn’t actually guilty of anything, being locked in jail allowed him to discover and neutralize a bomb buried by “space fighters from the planet Saturn,” so if he had been kept out of jail there might have been a greater tragedy. Nonetheless, we’re happier knowing that it wasn’t really “The Day Superman Broke the Law.”