Are victims of coersion and threat legally responsible for commiting crimes under duress?
March 21, 2011 3:51 PM   Subscribe

Legal hypothesis (from a recent episode of Flashpoint): What are you responsible for in the eyes of the court (US) if you commit a crime (let's say robbery) under duress (threat of death)? Does that change if you commit murder? Does that change if its not you being threatened, but your kidnapped daughter?

I see these situations come up all the time, but in almost every show and movie, they never resolve the consequences of the person being used to commit the crime by proxy of the real criminal. I know it's fiction, but I'm sure it's come up before, and I'm wondering if these poor victims are responsible in any way. To understand the whole range, let's say the most minimal situation is the victim being threatened with death (remote control collar bomb) and being forced to rob a bank. Let's say the most legally questionable is having the victim's daughter kidnapped and threatened with death, and the victim is forced to carry out a murder themselves.
posted by unrequited to Law & Government (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you're looking for the defenses of necessity and duress. The answers to these questions, as with many things in law, varies widely depending on the particular situation and circumstances of the case, and ultimately can come down to whether a jury agrees.
posted by zachlipton at 4:02 PM on March 21, 2011

Well, you'd likely be charged anyway unless it was crystal clear that you were not responsible for your actions. Prosecutors have a lot of leeway in deciding to prosecute and often decide to just leave any mitigating circumstances to be decided by the jury who may convict or acquit as they see fit.
posted by inturnaround at 4:04 PM on March 21, 2011

I served on a jury for a case where a guy (call him X) claimed he was forced to commit the robbery because the bad guys had his pregnant wife and would kill her if he didn't go along. The big issues we had were whether the threats actually took place, whether he genuinely feared for his wife's life, and whether he avoided/stopped the crime as much as he could -- e.g., when the cops showed up, did he continue to participate in the criminal activity or not?
We ended up acquitting him of everything except evading arrest, because he participated in a high-speed chase when he could have safely surrendered to the cops.
So if the victim shows any initiative in committing the crime (i.e., shoots to kill when all they were told to do was rob the bank), or if the jury doesn't believe the story, they will probably still be convicted, but duress can be a defense in a case like this.
posted by katemonster at 4:08 PM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

At common law and by statute in most jurisdictions duress is not a defense to murder. As Blackstone put it, "he ought rather to die himself than escape by the murder of an innocent."
posted by jedicus at 4:10 PM on March 21, 2011

Best answer: Duress is an affirmative defense in New York and I would bet every other state in the US. I can't speak for how things work in other countries.

Check the NY statute, it's pretty interesting - for example, according to the NY statute, you can't use the defense if you've recklessly placed yourself into a situation where it would be probable that you would be placed under duress. Also note that the "reasonable firmness" standard is objective, not subjective - it's not about whether the victim/perpetrator him/herself felt under duress, but rather whether a person of "reasonable firmness" would have been "unable to resist."
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:14 PM on March 21, 2011

Heiress Patricia Hearst was convicted of armed robbery (IIRC) even though she'd been kidnapped and held in a closet by terrorists who managed to "convert" her to their ideology. From what we know of the persuasive techniques used, she probably did not freely choose her participation but because they were "soft" techniques (ie, she didn't have a gun to her head at the time and seemed to be really "into" her new beliefs), she was thought to committed the crime voluntarily and convicted despite expert testimony to the contrary.
posted by Maias at 4:32 PM on March 21, 2011

Best answer: My recreational, non-binding, ten minute for-entertainment-purposes-only research has turned up some other nuggets.

Somewhat unusually, in NY, the duress defense is theoretically allowable for murder. Other jurisdictions are not the same. In other jurisdictions, such as in CA, the duress defense is not allowable for capital offenses. In most American jurisdictions, Blackstone's prohibition against allowing the duress defense for murder carries through the statutory and/or common law.

Most amusingly, however: even in many states where duress is not a defense to murder, duress might still effectively be a defense to felony murder, if the duress defense works for the underlying felony.

Finally: the term for abducting a loved one in order to coerce them into performing your demands is "tiger kidnapping".
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:34 PM on March 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, this gives me a great start to go from, does anybody know off-hand a Law & Order episode that has dealt with this? I'm really curious as to how it plays out in the courtroom.
posted by unrequited at 4:40 PM on March 21, 2011

does anybody know off-hand a Law & Order episode that has dealt with this?

Truth is stranger than fiction: the pizza bomber (NPR; I'm thinking there's a longer broadcast version of this story, perhaps on TAL, but I can't find it).
posted by neuron at 4:55 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Holy geez.
posted by unrequited at 6:08 PM on March 21, 2011

This article about the Pizza Bomber Thing is the strangest non-fiction piece I've ever read.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 8:40 PM on March 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

There was a FPP about the pizza bomber back in January.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 12:34 PM on March 22, 2011

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