Why are booby traps bad?
August 27, 2007 5:44 PM   Subscribe

What are the legal rules about booby traps? Are electrified security fences legal? Would sufficient labeling permit a nonlethal booby trap?

(Derail from this previous thread)

I can understand in general that booby traps are bad, as it lacks human intervention. However, I don't see how electrified fences are legally any different, yet they exist.

BONUS: Does anyone have a link to the flash animation from ca. 2000 of a stickman attempting to hotwire a car, only to be met with a series of lethal countermeasures?
posted by FuManchu to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When asking if something is legal or illegal it is good to specify your location, laws being different in different countries and states and all.
posted by ND¢ at 5:59 PM on August 27, 2007

In the previous thread I was talking about the law in England and Wales, where I presumed that question was asked. There Offences Against The Person Act 1861 s 31 makes it an offence to set up a mechanical contrivance calculated to destroy human life or cause grievous bodily harm.

In R v Munks [1964] 1 QB 304, it was held that electrifying a window pane did not fall under this law as it was not a mechanical contrivance. But it would still probably fall under other assault laws.

Any legitimate electric fence I have ever come across was clearly marked with warnings. That means it is not really a "trap" since the potential trespasser should know it is there, and probably affords some protection against a charge of manslaughter or assault.
posted by grouse at 6:03 PM on August 27, 2007

Response by poster: ND¢: I understand. This isn't something I'm going to put into practice, or about a specific instance. I'd be interested in the laws of different regions. I don't know which areas electrified fences are legal, either.
posted by FuManchu at 6:03 PM on August 27, 2007

There, the Offences Against The Person Act...
posted by grouse at 6:04 PM on August 27, 2007

A famous U.S. case on the issue of civil liability for booby-traps is Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971). The notable quotation from the decision is: "the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights of property."
posted by ND¢ at 6:05 PM on August 27, 2007

IANAL but that sounds like a dangerous instrumentality, which the courts don't smile upon.
posted by Tuwa at 6:27 PM on August 27, 2007

Near my elementary school (in New York State) there was a house with an electric fence. It was for garden protection from deer, I think. It certainly wouldn't deter criminals, but it was clearly marked. We would dare each other to touch it, and some kids did, including myself. The power turned out to be pulsed, because I got half a second of thinking the whole thing was a hoax before I got zapped.

I have to assume this was all legal.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:30 PM on August 27, 2007

That kind of electric fence is common for animal control. I got to thinking about the dye pack thing. It would seem that there may be a difference between a booby trap that only known criminals could trigger (our hypothetical bank robber) and those that the general public might trigger electrified doorknob. Especially if there is any chance someone like a firefighter could be affected.
posted by Mitheral at 6:31 PM on August 27, 2007

Considering that you can be sued for having a swimming pool, I think having some sort of uncommon booby trap would leave you highly liable.

IANAL, but I expect community standards would come into play. If you are in cattle country and you have barbed wire or an electric fence, you wouldn't be in any trouble. But if I tried to string either one up around my house in Brookline, MA, I'd probably be running afoul of some law, regardless of how I labeled it. Things would be even worse if it was some sort of weird booby trap that no one would recognize as such, apart from the labeling.
posted by alms at 7:14 PM on August 27, 2007

Well, dye packs aren't exactly lethal so I can't see why they'd be restricted devices.

As has been attested to, electrified fences typically do not run enough amperage to kill a human adult. I think the non-lethal aspect and the intentions of electrified fences (animal control) allows it to avoid legal duress.

As to being sued, it's not illegal to have an outdoor swimming pool and the suit would be civil, not criminal. I'm sure you could still be sued over an electrified fence (or hell, not salting your sidewalk [which is "public property"] and having someone slip on some place ice that formed on it.

I wonder if the legality of booby traps has anything to do with intention regardless of lethality?

iirc, people who run marijuana grow ops with lethal boobytraps (shotguns rigged to blast through a door when the handle is turned, &c) receive stiffer sentencing and the booby trap is an additional offense.
posted by porpoise at 7:40 PM on August 27, 2007

Harm someone and you can be sued. (There are distinctions between civil and criminal harm.) Even so mild a tort as hosting an attractive niusance (the classic example is a swimming pool) can get your hiney sued if someone is hurt, even an intruder.

Whether or nor the opposing party prevails is a different story. Whether hs is awarded damages is a different story. Whether he can collect damages is yet another story.

Defending yourself against any lawsuit is not cheap, even if you ARE a lawyer (and I am not!). That's the one thing you can usually count on... lawsuits are expensive.
posted by FauxScot at 7:59 PM on August 27, 2007

Why are booby traps bad?

Because they hurt people, or perhaps imprison them, and you should not (and are not allowed to) hurt or imprison people except in a reasonable self defense from bodily harm. Your stuff is not worth someone's life. Imagine you going to jail because a kid tried to steal your Star Wars figurines and Elvis plates.

The third-best booby trap is an alarm, a camera, and a call to the police. Caught on video + caught by police = intruder trapped for a long time in a big building full of very scary people. Or if the intruder is young, make sure the parents see the video -- he may get much worse from them than the police would ever give him.

The second-best booby trap is to thwart the booby (with safe fences, alarms, bars, lights, signs, etc.) so he instead tries to rob your gun-nut neighbor's stuff. But that can be too conspicuous.

The best booby trap is to have (or at least appear to have) nothing a booby would want to invade or steal. Be inconspicuous. People into conspicuous consumption deserve to be robbed. Have a modest home, a modest car (or none at all), and no expensive extra stuff. Now the booby has to go elsewhere (perhaps to the Elmer Fudd in the next house) to get stuff he can fence and you haven't stayed up nights worrying about your stupid Lexus.
posted by pracowity at 12:17 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

A properly constructed electric fence won't kill anyone, even kids who dare each other to pee on it. No, I'm not dumb enough to have tried this myself.
posted by yohko at 9:06 AM on August 28, 2007

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