Given every second movie these days seems to be about a superhero (or perhaps in the near future, a superheroine – the Wonder Woman movie was great, and there needs to be more movies like it) I have been wondering how legal it would be for me to don my favourite pair of tights – my purple ones – and get out there and save the world.
The problem is, if you count the number of illegal acts that a superhero commits in a two-hour-long movie, they add up very quickly. I just watched one of those Marvel superhero movies, which starred a former drug-addicted actor, and in no particular order I saw his character commit the crimes of assault, battery, speeding, running red lights, driving a non-roadworthy vehicle, flying an aircraft without (I presume) a pilot’s licence, breaking and entering, carrying concealed weapons (including explosives and cool lasers), entering and leaving countries without permission or appropriate visas (and not declaring goods at customs), murder, arson, stealing government secrets, treason, endangering children, kidnapping, intimidation, illegal interview techniques, torture, animal cruelty, drinking in public, being too handsome for his age, and invasion of privacy.
Yet in all the superhero movies I have seen, and all the superhero comic books I have read, no good guy (or girl) ever seems to get in any real legal trouble. I’ve never seen Batman get a summons to appear in the District Court to defend a claim of damages and compensation from someone whose car was demolished by the Batmobile during a high-speed chase.
Unfortunately, the real world is very different from the movies – huge surprise, I know. There is no defence under Australian laws for ‘being a superhero.’ Or, to put it another way, there is no legal defence when someone decides to take the law into their own hands. In fact, our law has a term for this sort of person: vigilante. And being a vigilante is illegal.
A New South Wales court case from a few years ago provides a perfect example of this. An older lady named Ms Bonnet was arrested after attacking a man she believed was having a sexual relationship with her sixteen-year-old daughter. Her defence was that, by beating the crap out of the man, she was protecting the public from a sexual predator. The judge rejected her arguments, and Ms Bonnet was found guilty of assault and battery. The judge said that vigilante justice could not be a defence to criminal actions, regardless of how noble the intentions of the vigilante might be. The fact that her daughter was in a consensual relationship with the man did not help Ms Bonnet’s case, either.
However, I should not give up my dream of being a superhero just yet. There are still a few things I can do to protect you all from criminal masterminds and other evildoers like clueless tourists who block our footpaths. It is not illegal for me to don my superhero costume, go out looking for troublemakers, and if I see someone doing something illegal place them under citizens’ arrest.
Yes, we as private individuals are legally allowed to arrest someone. However, we do not have anywhere near the same powers of arrest that the police have.
All states and territories have their own laws for how a private citizen can lawfully arrest someone, and the limits of those arrest powers. They are all quite similar and broadly say that:
1. The person you are arresting must be in the act of committing a criminal offence, or have just committed that offence, when you put them under citizens’ arrest.
2. You must see the offence. You cannot make a citizens’ arrest based on a suspicion of criminal activity.
3. Once you have arrested someone, you must take the offender, and any property they have on them, to the nearest police officer or police station, from which point the police take over.
4. If you make an arrest without a justifiable cause, or do not bring the offender to the police as soon as possible, you can be charged for assault, battery, false imprisonment, or deprivation of liberty. I am not sure if this means the offender could put you under citizens’ arrest in return, but it is a real possibility, creating a citizens’ arrest feedback loop that is blowing my mind right now.
5. You are responsible for your own safety when you make a citizens’ arrest, and should not do it if it means endangering yourself or others.
6. While you can use force to arrest someone, you cannot use excessive levels of force or weapons, or items that would otherwise be illegal for you to use, like handcuffs or pepper spray (coincidently, I have a section in this book on this exact topic, if you’re interested). In one extreme case, a man in Queensland made a citizens’ arrest and then proceeded to put the offender in a choke hold, literally choking the offender to death. The person making the citizens’ arrest was immediately charged with manslaughter, as the steps he took went well beyond a reasonable use of force in making the citizens’ arrest.
The power to make a citizens’ arrest means that I can live out my superhero fantasy in the real world, to some small extent. However, my superhero powers – much like my intelligence – are very limited. And any cool superhero weapons I make are going to be illegal and get me into serious trouble. Finally, the criminals I apprehend are probably going to resist arrest, and I am completely useless in a fight. Just ask the 5 year old that stole my fries, and my dignity, at McDonalds the other day.
Perhaps, in the end, it is better to keep my superhero fantasies where they belong – in the bedroom or at comic book conventions. See you there. The conventions, not the bedroom.