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Law is a Ass by Bob Ingersoll
Join us each Tuesday as Bob Ingersoll analyzes how the law
is portrayed in comics then explains how it would really work.

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THE LAW IS A ASS for 08/10/1999
DOCKET ENTRY Installment # 5
Published in The Comics Buyer's Guide # 512
September 9, 1983

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Vigilante.

You'll learn more about the character and the book in the actual column which follows this Docket Entry. He was instrumental to this column. His first issue came out about the same time as I started the column, and I managed to do a separate installment about each of Vigilante's first five issues. I found more columns' worth of material in several succeeding issues. Between Vig-as we called him-and the Flash, who as you saw last week, initiated a one and one-half year long story line in which he was being tried for murdering the super- villain, Reverse-Flash; I had what every budding columnist needs-perpetual column fodder. I should have been grateful. I wasn't.

Suffice it to say, as you will see in the column which follows, I did not like the Vigilante; either the character or the book. What you won't see in the column which follows is an important lesson I learned.

My original draft for the column was . . . Well, I compared the book, and unfavorably, to the output of a company that did a story about white bigot cannibals who ate black babies, because they liked dark meat. And that was one of their better efforts.

Tony Isabella politely informed me that the column stank. Actually, considering the word "stank" was used, I'm not sure Tony's comments could really be called polite. Still, they were needed. See, he was right. The column, as written, was vitriolic without being vital; extremist without being worth the extremes. It lacked perspective.

I rewrote the column. It was pithier, less vitriolic and, not surprisingly, a whole lot funnier. Now-sixteen years later-I'm still writing my column. The Vigilante was canceled in 1987.

One should never lose one's perspective.

"The Law is a Ass"
Installment # 5
by Bob Ingersoll

If I start to rant, let me know. I'll try to restrain myself.

Today's subject is the latest creation of the "New DC", The Vigilante. Vigilante # 1 is called, "A fable for our times," and it begins, "Once upon a time." Both are appropriate. The story about the trio of anthropomorphic shoats who learn a hard lesson about the dangers of using substandard building materials is more believable that the claptrap found in Vigilante.

The comic tells the adventures of Adrian Chase, a crusading district attorney with a high conviction rate, who rages when, after a "text book arrest" he finds that, "those proven guilty of crimes . . . are released because of some technicality."

After Chase arrests Anthony Scarpelli, a known mob figure, Scarpelli orders Chase's apartment bombed. Chase's wife and children die in the explosion. Chase survives. Scarpelli is released because of a "stupid technicality."

Chase decides that the law isn't working properly and that he must mete out his own justice. "His justice comes from his heart, not from a book of law. It's always right. Sometimes it's legal." Chase becomes a costumed figure who tracks down the lawless to be their punisher or executioner, the Vigilante.

What a fantastic origin! It's about as original as a Xerox copy and with a portrayal of the American legal system that's more simplistic than a Big Bird lesson on the ABC's.

Not that comics need to be complex, mind you. But, when they deal with weighty legal issues like the applicability, or even desirability of the United States Constitution in the criminal justice system, something a little more even-handed than the reactionary thinking demonstrated in Vigilante is not only desirable, it's needed.

And, of course, credibility would have been nice, too. There isn't one detail about the Vigilante's origin that bears the slightest resemblance to reality.

Adrian Chase, we are told, was a crusading district attorney, who enjoyed a high conviction rate. I doubt it. From what I've seen of his abilities to date, Adrian Chase is an incompetent boob who wouldn't be able to find his own posterior with both hands and a road map.

Vigilante # 1 shows the full extent of Chase's prosecutorial abilities. Vigilante wants to prosecute and convict Quilt, another known mob figure. Why? Because as district attorney, Chase prosecuted Quilt four times and each time failed to get a conviction. A first- year law student who hadn't had a class on evidence could have convicted Quilt.

Quilt, you see, employs a professional hitman named Brand, and Brand is rather distinctive. White leather coat. White turtle neck shirt. White pants. White boots. White gloves. White wraparound sunglasses. White loop earring. White handlebar moustache. White Mohawk haircut. Brand even drives a white Mercedes Benz. And he's an albino to boot. This guy would stand out in a punk rock convention.

And he-for crying out loud!-kills people by skewering them with a branding iron which burns block letter B's into them. That M.O.'s about a subtle as Mr. T's jewelry.

But how does this convict Quilt? Simple. With Brand's affected appearance, he'd be noticed wherever he went, hell not even Beverly Hills has seen that much white. All Chase had to do, once he found a corpse or three emblazoned with a B, was ask around. Someone had to have seen Brand or his car in the vicinity. DA's like to talk about establishing, "Motive, means and opportunity." Brand's effected M.O. and appearance hands Chase two of the big three-opportunity and a means that screams, "I did it! Come and get me!"-on a silver platter, if not a white gold one. If Chase could prove motive, chances are he would be able to get a conviction on Brand.

Motive is easy. Show that Brand works for Quilt (and these guys made so little effort to hide their working relationship, that Quilt probably declares Brand as a business expense), then show that Brand is killing Quilt's "business rivals." That gives us motive and the combination equals conviction.

But what about Quilt? After all, Chase didn't want underlings, he wanted the big boy. Surprisingly enough, the same evidence that would convict Brand would also be enough to convict Quilt on conspiracy to commit murder charges and on straight murder charges as an aider and abettor. And just to sweeten the deal, Chase could always put some pressure on Brand (you know threatening him with the electric chair or about fifteen consecutive life sentences, all the stuff you see on Law and Order), then wait to see how long before Brand rolled over on Quilt. Jeez, Adrian chase didn't even learn the first lesson of a crusading district attorney: never underestimate the power of a good fink.

So how is it that Adrian Chase, high conviction rate and all, never thought of this? The word "lousy" springs to mind.

If you still don't believe me that Vigilante isn't exactly the best there is at what he does, try this one: Vigilante kills criminals, so he is wanted by both the police and the mob. His headquarters is an RV the size of a Greyhound VistaCruiser, which is painted with racing stripes identical to the piping on his Vigilante costume. Matt Murdock without his radar sense could find that thing, and Foggy Nelson could outrun it.

The other major aspect of Vigilante's origin is that Chase was so outraged by his "textbook" arrests and convictions being thrown out on "stupid technicalities", that he became a costume figure dedicated to tracking down those proven guilty who escape on technicalities. Chase's philosophy and character are so broadly drawn-the blacks and whites of the issues presented are so stark-that everything in the book-from Chase himself to his philosophy and all the way up to the morality presented in the comic-is a study in exaggeration. Pablo Picasso's Guernica was subtler.

First look at the problem as Adrian Chase perceives it. "Text book" arrests are ruined because of technicalities. Sorry, but that simply cannot be. A "text book" arrest is a perfect arrest, one made without mistake or flaw. Such an arrest cannot and will not be thrown out on a technicality.

These technicalities, you see, aren't stupid; they're our constitutional rights. They are found in the Bill Of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. These are the rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, which our founding fathers saw trammeled under the British monarchy. These are the rights which they rebelled from their motherland to secure. The founding fathers felt these rights were so essential to a free and ordered society, that they incorporated them into the Constitution-the highest law in the land-to insure that no man or government could abridge them. Not even crusading district attorneys.

When evidence is suppressed-a confession because it was obtained by coercion, drugs because they were found during an illegal search-it is because the way the police came upon the evidence violated the Constitution. In such a situation, the courts strike the balance as to which is more important, the possible conviction or the preservation of the individual and constitutional rights involved. If the evidence is thrown out, it is because the constitutional violation was of such a magnitude that preserving the right involved outweighed the conviction.

It's like a forty yard Joe Montana touchdown pass being called back because of a holding penalty. The play may have been beautiful, but it was not "text book." It was successful as the result of cheating. The rules of Football prohibit a team from profiting from its own cheating. The Constitution does the same.

A perfect or "text book" arrest cannot have violated the Constitution. It will never be jeopardized by suppressed evidence. Only imperfect and constitutionally flawed arrests suffer from evidence being thrown out, which is as it should be.

A case in point from Adrian Chase's own career will show exactly how unreasonable, not to mention unreasoning, he is on the point. Chase's concept of a "text book" arrest can be found in The New Teen Titans # 33 and 34. Chase secured a warrant to search Anthony Scarpelli's house for unlicenced guns. Chase chose to execute that warrant by literally breaking into Scarpelli's house at night, commando style-right down to the black turtleneck shirt and stocking cap. All that was missing was Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes howling, "Waahoooo!"

When the police execute a search warrant, they cannot simply break into a house at night. Under the constitutional concept of a reasonable search, the police must execute search warrants during the day time, unless the warrant specifically provides for a nighttime execution, and the police must knock and announce themselves before they enter. If they do not, the search warrant was not properly executed and any evidence seized will be suppressed.

Chase, as a district attorney, should have known this; his not paying attention during Criminal Procedure class isn't an excuse. Had he executed his search warrant properly, Chase would have been able to search anywhere Scarpelli might hidden an unlicenced gun. Chase would have found the unlicenced gun Scarpelli used and would have had perfect, unsuppressible evidence to convict Scarpelli. Had Chase acted properly, he would have had an air tight case.

But noooooo . . .

Chase had to storm in like the Allied troops landing on Normandy. His conscious act invalidated his search warrant and doomed his conviction. His decision not to obey the rules defeated him, not the courts.

I told you Chase was incompetent.

Chase's acts show that his concept of the law is that there are good guys and bad guys and that the bad guys must be stopped no matter what. Chase's philosophy allows no room for considering the important question of how the constitutional rights of the individual are to be balanced against the goals of the criminal justice system. Chase's acts and philosophy are those of a fool, who doesn't deserve to enforce his own concept of justice at gun point (or, more accurately, at bullet point).

Okay, I'll put my soap box away. For now. But if I ever hear that phrase again, you know the one about "text book" arrests and "technicalities", it's coming back out.

#

Now, a word about vigilantism, itself. Yuuchhh!

#

Finally, I could complain about the double standard evidenced in Vigilante. In The New Teen Titans # 33, when Scarpelli, a mobster, used an unlicenced gun to defend his house from an attack, the reader is left with the impression that it is a good thing that the gun licensing law is being applied to vermin like Scarpelli. In Vigilante # 1, when Al Reynolds, a good guy and victim, used an equally unlicenced gun to defend his house from attack, the court's decision to invoke the statutorily mandated sentence for possessing unlicenced guns, the same sentences Chase was trying to impose on Scarpelli, is called a case of justice being bought off.

I could complain. But why bother? I try to avoid attacking one legged cats and ludicrous, transparent pomposity. One question, though: if Al was so damned law abiding, why didn't he obey the law and register his gun? He would have saved himself a lot of trouble.

I have nothing more to say about Vigilante # 1. Certainly not one of the bon mots with which I concluded my other columns. There is nothing particularly funny about the book.

Frankly it scares me. From the covers (the Vigilante has been featured on two covers to date, Vigilante # 1 and The New Teen Titans Annual # 2, and each time has been posed with a gun pointed outward ready to blow our heads off!), to the philosophy espoused, to the story lines which glorify a man who supplants the Constitution with his own personal concept of justice; the book scares me. But even more frightening is the fact that too many people will read the book and accept its unreasoned, black and white philosophy without thinking about the issues involved or their implications.

Now that terrifies me.

BOB INGERSOLL
<< 08/03/1999 | 08/10/1999 | 08/17/1999 >>

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