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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 08/20/2002

"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 158

Originally written as installment # 140 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 759, June 3 1988 issue

Cows, apparently, love chewing their cud twice. I'd hate it. That's why it always pains me that comic book writers don't learn from their past mistakes, repeat them and force me to write about the same mistakes over and over and over and over.

The Silver Platter Doctrine is a particular sore point. Misapplication of it repeats in comics like a bad burrito. I'm thinking of compiling a Silver Platter Doctrine macro on my computer, so I can do an entire column installment with one push of a button.


Installment # 158

Tra la, it's May, the lusty month May. The lovely month when every prime time show that's been showing reruns since March airs the two or three episodes it hoarded so it can goose its May Sweeps ratings -- every prime time show except Moonlighting, of course, which hasn't had a new episode since the Feebruary sweeps. Here it is May, the last month of first run episodes, and I don't get a first run column. I get a rerun.

No, that doesn't mean that you're going to see "Atomic Shakespeare" for the fourth time. And it doesn't mean I'm going to sandwich a bunch of flashbacks into a meaningless and meatless framing sequence. But it does mean, that today, we're going to talk about another aspect of the Silver Platter Doctrine.

You remember the Doctrine, don't you? It's the rule that says if a private citizen breaks into someone's house, illegally seizes evidence, and gives it to the police; the police will still be able to introduce the evidence at trial because there was no state action involved in the illegality which seized the evidence. Please tell me that you remember it! I talked about it only two weeks ago. I'd hate to think your retention spans are that short. However, if they are, you have a future. You have all the qualifications to be a contestant on Beat the Geeks.

Anyway, those of you who do remember the Silver Platter Doctrine might have wondered why it didn't work in Batman # 422, so as to make the bloodstained knife that the Batman found hidden in the floorboards of Karl Branneck's apartment admissible. After all, Batman's a private citizen, so his search should be covered by the Doctrine. I'll get to that, presently. But first, those of you who don't remember Batman # 422 might be wondering what bloodstained knife, so I'd better do a little recapping. (It's necessary, honest. This isn't a sneaky way of sandwiching some flashbacks into a framing sequence).

It all started back in Batman # 414. There was a mad slasher in Gotham -- Why do slashers always have to be mad? Why can't they ever be just mildly eccentric? -- who killed and dismembered four wommen and left their bodies in garbage dumpsters. The Dumpster Killer's fourth victim, was Kate Babcock -- a woman in whom Bruce Wayne was becoming increasingly, if not romantically, interested. (It should be noted, incidentally, that the timing of Kate's dates with Bruce and her death made it impossible to fit her murder into the rigid pattern of killing someone every week but skipping every third week that Batman attributed to the killer in Batman # 421. Maybe that's why in Batman #421, Kate was changed from victim # 4 into victim # 5. It's either that or assuming that Batman lost count of how many mutilated and dismembered female corpses he had found in garbage dumpsters.) Batman became obsessed with the! Dumpster Killer -- as opposed t his normal frame of mind.

Weeks went by during which Batman did not catch the Dumpster Killer. He was busy. He had to reconcile with Dick Grayson, fill in some of the continuity holes created by Jason Todd's new origin, become involved with the Millennium, and track down the KGBeast. Meanwhile, the Dumpster Killer's total reached eleven victims.

Then Batman caught a break. Someone saw the killers dumping victim # 11 into the dumpster and drive away in a red van which Batman traced to the Iron Dragons, a Chinatown street gang. Batman confronted the Iron Dragons and learned from the only member who was still conscious after the obligatory fight scene that they had been arrested the night of the murder and their van had been in the police impound lot.

An earlier suspect in Kate Babcock's murder had proven his innocence because he, too, had been in jail at the time and his van had been in the police impound lot. Batman suspected a pattern. Big deal! At this point, so would have Bullwinkle the Moose.

Victor Giambattista was the only policeman on duty at the impound lot on every night of a Dumpster Killer murder. Batman went to the lot to confront Vic, but Vic was off duty. Vic learned of Batman's interest, phoned the person he had been renting the vans to, and arranged a meeting. When Batman tracked Vic to his apartment, he found Vic stabbed in the back. But Vic, an obvious Ellery Queen fan, left a dying clue, he wrote the word, "cugino," -- Italian for cousin -- on the floor in his own blood.

Vic had only one cousin, Vito Procaccini. (This is stretching credulity a little too much. How many Italians with only one cousin do you know?)

Batman searched Vito's apartment. Vito attacked him. Batman won and tried to coerce a confession out of Vito. However, before he could, Karl Branneck entered and accused Batman of burglarizing the apartment. Batman realized that Karl and Vito were the Dumpster Killers. He also realized that he couldn't prove anything and that Karl was correct in accusing him of burglary. Batman left rather than be arrested.

To this point Batman had demonstrated less detective ability than Dr. Watson. Why didn't Batman simply get a warrant to search Vito's apartment for evidence of Vic's murder? He had more than enough evidence to get a warrant. If he had, he would have been able to take the knife Vito attacked him with, arrest Vito and avoid the two more deaths which were to follow.

Yes, two more deaths, this story has a bigger body count than a Clint Eastwood movie. Death # 1: Karl knifes Vito, because he thinks Vito is a weak link who'll crack, and leaves Vito on a subway track so the train will conceal the true cause of death. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on whether you're rooting for the good guy or the bad guy, Vito rolls off of the tracks and the stab wounds are still visible on his body.

Batman doesn't learn from his past mistakes, however. He searches Karl's apartment for evidence of Vito's murder -- once again without a warrant. It costs him. The judge at Karl's trial suppresses the knife, because Batman seized it duringg an illegal, warrantless search.

Maybe Batman should be a contestant on The Weakest Link.

Now, as I said earlier, those of you who remember the Silver Platter Doctrine might have wondered why the judge suppressed the evidence. After all, isn't Batman a private citizen, so isn't his illegal search private -- not state -- action and fully covered by the Doctrine?


Batman is, to use Commissioner Gordon's words, "Gotham's semi-official vigilante." In other words, he has a definite working relationship with the Gotham City Police department. They call him with a spot light and give him assignments. That's enough of a connection between Batman and the police to make anything he does state action, even if his position is only semi-official. The judge was right in ruling that Batman's illegal search was state action.

The judge was wrong, however, in suppressing the knife. There's another doctrine which the law recognizes which would apply in this case. I can forgive a comic book judge for not knowing it, however, I don't think I've ever written about it before. It's known as the Inevitable Discovery Doctrine.

This Doctrine says that, even if the police found evidence during an illegal search -- like Batman's -- if they would have inevitably found it by some legal means, then the evidence should not be suppressed beccause the police would have had it eventually anyway. The totality of the evidence that Batman knew would have been enough for him or the police to obtain a warrant to search Karl's apartment for evidence in Vito's murder. Thus, the police would have found the knife eventually by legal means and the judge shouldn't have suppressed the evidence. Of course, if he had, we wouldn't haven't gotten either the second death or the dramatic ending.

Death # 2: Judy Koslosky, the sister of the Dumpster Killers' second victim, has been tracking Karl for the entire story. She goads Karl into choosing her as his next victim. Then, before he can kill her, she pulls out a straight razor from her purse and slits his throat. Karl dies.

Dramatic ending: Judy turns herself in and fully confesses to tracking Karl down and goading him into coming at her, just so she could use her handy razor to kill him. The police tell her they'll have to charge her with manslaughter. She responds, "Good luck finding a jury that'll convict me."

I understood her point. I didn't understand the police's point. Why charge her with manslaughter, when she could have been charged with premeditated murder? I mean, if your case has no jury sympathy and you're going to lose anyway, why not go after all the marbles and lose as opposed to going half way and losing?

The story ends with Batman lecturing Robin. Robin agrees with Judy's statement, "It might not have been legal... but it was right." Batman admonishes the Boy Wonder, "Even though you and I skirt along the edges of it, we still operate within the legal system. That's the way it has to be."

Holy holier than thou, Batman. What's all this operating within the system crud? Not only did you consistently fail to do so during this story, aren't you the same man who only two issues ago locked the KGBeast in a sealed room in the Gotham City sewer system and left him there to starve to death? (Don't deny it, I've got the pictures!) Or do you expect me to believe, you've been slipping table scraps under the door every day?

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