Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Legal Troubles of Real Life Super Heroes

Phoenix Jones a.k.a Benjamin Fodor. Photo: Youtube.com

Originally Published 01/31 /2013.

 

They have names like Moon Dragon, Geist, and Purple Reign. They wear ski masks, gas masks, or, occasionally, no mask at all. They are the Real Life Super Heroes, civilians who dress up in costumes and head out into the night for some comic book inspired crime fighting.

There are Real Life Super Heroes operating in Australia, Italy, Norway, the UK, and even Liberia. The vast majority of Real Life Super Heroes, however, are in the United States. Although they often work alone, they sometimes organize themselves into collectives like the Rain City Superhero Movement in Seattle, the Black Monday Society in Salt Lake City, and the Great Lakes Hero Guild in Minneapolis.

Some Real Life Super Heroes are specialists, fighting one particular type of crime. Brooklyn’s Terriffica patrols the bars on weekends to help stop women who have had too much to drink from being taken advantage of. Dark Guardian, in Manhattan, is mostly concerned with keeping drug dealers out of Washington Square Park. But most simply go on patrol, looking for any crime or suspicious behavior that they can find.

Although Real Life Super Heroes have been around since the 1980s, they have recently been getting more and more attention. This is thanks, in large part, to their increasing Internet presence. Like any other group of like-minded people, the Real Life Super Heroes make frequent use of social media. RealLifeSuperHeroes.com compiles profiles of many of the heroes, complete with dramatic, professional photos that look like actors’ head shots. The profiles all feature write-ups on their subjects, discussing how they came to crime fighting and what motivates them to continue. They usually end with a link to a charity that the super hero would like his or her (but usually his) fans to support.

The Petoskey Batman, and his partner, the Petoskey Batgirl.

RealLifeSuperHeoes.org, on the other hand, hosts a message board that the heroes use to communicate with one another. In addition to general superhero news, the board provides a place for discussions of martial arts training, costume design, and crime fighting best practices. A recent post by a newly minted super hero, for example, asked for some help with crime-fighting footwear: “I was going to buy a pair of leather boots, and then use colored plastidip to make them the desired color but still have that leather look to them. I just wanted to ask if anyone here has tried it to make sure it would work.” The rest of the community offered suggestions about leather dyes and the problems with spray paint. Finally, a more seasoned crime fighter jumped in to caution that “Footwear is a top priority for patrol gear,” and to tell potential Real Life Super Heroes, “Don’t worry about the color so much as functionality. TRUST ME!”

By far, however, the vast majority of online Real Life Super Hero activity is conducted on Facebook. Almost all of them have Facebook fan pages, where they can collect “likes” from grateful citizens. Many Real Life Super Heroes also use their Facebook pages to connect to other costumed crime fighters, document their exploits, and spread their crime fighting messages. Oakland’s Motor Mouth explains his goals in a statement that is typical of Real Life Super Hero Facebook profiles:

I wanna take the fight back to all those that have ever hurt anybody else. I wanna make the helpless realize they can be helped. I wanna help the down-trodden realize that somebody can help them get back up. I want to help the cities of my area and make sure that people know my name and that I’m not just some random guy wearing a mask, some dude who read too many comic books, or somebody that doesn’t have a life.

If you’ve heard of the Real Life Super Heroes at all, you’ve probably heard of Seattle’s Phoenix Jones. This is due, in large part, to Jones’ high profile friendship with actor Rainn Wilson, who has introduced his own fans and Twitter followers to the black and yellow clad super hero. The fame comes at a price, however. In November of 2011, Jones was arrested for assault after using pepper spray on a group of people near a bar. Jones claims that he was breaking up a fight, while both the police and the group in question say that no such fight was taking place. The arrest report includes a comment by the arresting officer who suggests that Seattle’s police are growing increasingly exasperated with the local super hero community:

[Jones] has a history of injecting himself in these incidents… Although [Jones] has been advised to observe and report incidents to 911, he continues to try to resolve them himself.

Because Jones is so well-known, news of his arrest spread quickly, as news outlets across the country quickly realized that they had a ready-made ‘quirky news’ story on their hands. Jones’ arrest, however, was only the first in a nationwide string of incidents involving Real Life Super Heroes who have run afoul of the police. Members of the Real Life Super Hero community are increasingly finding that they’re risking more than injury when they don their costumes and go on patrol. Here are just a few recent incidents in which these masked crusaders have found themselves on the wrong side of the very laws they claim to uphold:

In April of 2012, a Michigan superhero who calls himself Bee Sting was arrested for discharging a shotgun during an altercation in a trailer park that he had been hired to patrol.

Mark Wayne Williams, the “Petoskey Batman,” was recently charged with obstruction for dressing up as Batman and trying to apprehend criminals in his Michigan town. Because Williams is a “habitual offender,” he faced 15 years in prison, much higher than the 43 month average sentence that “administration of justice” offenses usually carry in Michigan. After a few trips to court, Williams announced on his Facebook page that he wouldn’t be going to prison after all–prosecutors decided to only pursue a┬átrespassing┬ácharge against him and he was ordered to write a letter of apology to the city.

In August a New Jersey man named Matthew Argintar was arrested for disorderly conduct and illegal possession of handcuffs after he was picked up wearing a costume near a local Home Depot.

Matthew Argintar handcuffed to a wall, wearing a torn Batman costume. Police photo.

Argintar’s arrest raises troubling questions for the Real Life Super Hero community since, unlike Phoenix Jones and Bee Sting, he was not arrested for committing a violent crime. Instead, according to his lawyer, he was arrested simply for dressing up as a superhero, under the theory that the costume alone is enough to constitute disorderly conduct. In fact, Argintar’s MO does not appear to have involved any actual crime fighting. Instead, Argintar told the Lehigh Valley Express Post, he was trying to “inspire hope” by dressing as a superhero.

This is actually not that uncommon in the Real Life Super Hero community. Many Real Life Super Heroes are essentially doing costumed homeless outreach, handing out food and other supplies to people living on the streets. Some of the more active and confrontational superheroes are dismissive of these efforts–Jones calls them “real life sandwich-handlers.” But these kinds of superheroes are obviously less likely to get into legal trouble than are superheroes willing to use violence. Other heroes, like Bee Sting, operate as costumed security guards, and are paid to protect specific private property. This provides them with a little more legal protection than if they were patrolling the public streets. The recent arrests of Argintar and Bee Sting, however, just go to show that any Real Life Super Heroes, no matter how low-key, could find themselves arrested.

According to James Daly and Ryan Davidson, co-authors of The Law and Superheroes, which uses comic book scenarios to explain the ins and outs of the American legal system, civilian superheroes could face a whole series of legal consequences. The first legal stumbling block: the mask. “Some states have laws that prohibit the wearing of identity-concealing masks in public except for certain circumstances such as a masquerade party,” said Daly. Davidson added that, even when a costume or disguise is not itself illegal, it can still make prosecution more likely, or lead to a harsher sentence: “many states have laws making it illegal for felons to possess body armor, and several have laws that make it illegal for anyone to possess body armor while committing a crime. It’s a way of escalating the severity of the offense–and thus the sentence–for criminals who have seemingly put some thought and/or resources into their enterprise.” This is exactly what happened to Bee Sting. His initial arrest was for discharging a shotgun, but he was also charged with wearing body armor while committing a crime.

Since most criminal laws are state laws, the legal landscape for Real Life Super Heroes varies from state to state. Daly singled out Texas as being especially unwelcoming to civilian crime fighters, especially if those crime fighters would like to see their efforts result in a conviction. “Texas extends the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule to everyone, not just government agents,” he explained. “This means that if evidence is obtained in violation of the law, then that evidence is inadmissible in court. In every other state this only applies if it was a government agent that violated the law.”

There are a few laws, like Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law, that could potentially help out an amateur superhero. But, Daly, cautioned, “they are fairly narrow exceptions rather than the rule.” He explained that, while there are very specific circumstances in which civilians are allowed to intervene to prevent a crime, the police have a whole set of legal protections that are not available to regular people, whether or not they are wearing a costume. When asked what legal advice they would offer to someone considering becoming a superhero they were both emphatic: don’t do it. Both Daly and Davidson suggested that people interested in fighting crime join the police force. Otherwise, Davidson explained, they could face charges including but not limited to: “concealed/unlicensed/illegal weapons, menacing, trespassing (civil and criminal), stalking, aggravated assault, conversion, vandalism, disorderly conduct, etc.”

One thing that became clear as I talked to Daly and Davidson is that, while the costumes and masks may be new, the idea of civilian law enforcement has a long history. This is especially true in the United States, dating back to the early days of the westward expansion, when the lawless frontier required all justice to be civilian justice. In 1859, John Brown decided that the country wasn’t moving away from slavery fast enough, and fired the first shots of the Civil War well in advance of the Union Army. Daly told me about a group of amateur prohibition agents in 1920s Texas who are largely responsible for that state’s legal hostility to Real Life Super Heroes: “The Texas law was enacted because of citizen groups like the ‘Law and Order League’ (a name that could have come out of a comic book) that tried to enforce alcohol prohibition laws, often breaking other laws in the process. The similarities to modern real-life superheroes are pretty clear.” More recently, Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels sprung up in response to a particularly high-crime period in New York City’s history, and remain active today.

In all of these cases the civilians who took matters into their own hands had, at best, an uneasy relationship with the legal authorities. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since civilians do not take such dramatic action unless they believe that the official law enforcement has failed. In some ways, Real Life Super Heroes are publicly criticizing the police by their very existence, something that the police do not always appreciate.

The Real Life Super Heroes do occasionally find themselves a Commissioner Gordon; former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin declared October 13, 2008 to be the “Day of the Super Hero” in his city. Still, if the increasing frequency of arrest and severity of sentence is any indication, most law enforcement officials would prefer that would-be super heroes leave crime fighting to the professionals.

Craig Iturbe reviews superhero movies at JusticeBulletin.com

Interview With the Petoskey Batman, a Small-Town Superhero

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