Criminal Law Holiday Movies (You Might Be Surprised)

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I’ve been saving this post for the holidays because it suits the season and, after a long break, it seemed like a good way to start back to work (at least for me). What’s your favorite criminal law holiday movie? It’s hard to pick just one.

Bad Santa is up there for me. It’s a treasure trove of criminal offenses, big and small, particularly if you count repeat offenses, e.g., drunk and disruptive by Santa himself, played by Billy Bob Thornton.

Social media occasionally blows up over whether Die Hard, a blow ‘em up movie with Bruce Willis, is a Christmas movie. The School of Government is, of course, neutral on the issue, but I have a personal connection to the movie, which I explain at the end of this post, like a bonus scene after the credits.

What I really want to talk about is It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Jimmy Stewart movie. Justice Newby of our Supreme Court discussed the movie’s criminal law implications in his concurring opinion in State v. Jones, 369 N.C. 631 (2017).

In Jones, a payroll processor for a trucking company accidentally deposited $120000 into the defendant’s bank account instead of the $1200.00 owed him for his work as a truck driver. The defendant was informed of the error and was asked not to withdraw the excess funds, but he withdrew most of the money anyway. He was charged with and convicted of larceny.

The Court of Appeals found that the evidence did not satisfy North Carolina’s definition of larceny, which requires that the defendant take property from the owner’s possession by an act of trespass, either actual or constructive. The defendant did not commit an actual trespass because the trucking company deposited the money in his account without the defendant taking any action; and he did not commit a constructive trespass, which requires some fraudulent act, because the defendant engaged in no trick or artifice to get the trucking company to deposit the money in his account.

The Supreme Court recognized another theory of trespass, reversed the Court of Appeals, and upheld the defendant’s larceny conviction. The Supreme Court found that the trucking company retained constructive possession of the excess money, with the defendant having mere custody of it. The company mistakenly transferred the money to the defendant, the defendant knew of the error, and the company had the intent and capability to maintain control of the money by reversing the deposit. In these circumstances, the defendant committed an act of trespass against the trucking company’s property by withdrawing the money and depriving the company of the ability to reverse the deposit.

What does this have to do with It’s a Wonderful Life? In his concurring opinion in Jones, Justice Newby explains:

In this beloved film, on Christmas Eve morning in 1945, Uncle Billy goes to Old Man Potter’s bank to deposit $8000 in cash for his family’s benevolent business, the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan Company. While Uncle Billy is preparing his deposit slip in the bank lobby, Potter arrives with newspaper in hand. Uncle Billy turns to greet him and cannot help but good-naturedly needle crotchety Potter, who had greedily sought to quash the struggling Building & Loan Company for some time. Uncle Billy grabs the newspaper from Potter and proudly points to the picture of his nephew Harry on the front page—the war hero returning home. Potter angrily snatches the newspaper back, in which Uncle Billy had mistakenly folded the $8000 cash. At this point no crime has occurred; Uncle Billy has misplaced his money and Potter is unaware of his possession of it . . . .

Back in his bank office, Potter unfolds the newspaper and discovers the money. Meanwhile, Uncle Billy attempts to make the deposit and, in horror, finds that he has misplaced the funds. Potter begins to return with the money to the lobby, but upon opening his office door he observes Uncle Billy searching frantically. Potter “puts two and two together,” realizing the loss of funds will ruin George Bailey and his Building & Loan Company. Potter closes the door, keeping the $8000 cash. Armed with the knowledge that the money belongs to the Building & Loan Company, Potter exercises dominion and control by keeping the funds, and has thus committed larceny . . . . (footnote and citation omitted)

I don’t mean to be a Grinch (the subject of another good criminal law holiday movie—the animated one, not the live action one), but I’m not sure how well the trespass theory in Jones applies to Uncle Billy and Old Man Potter. Yes, Uncle Billy mistakenly transferred the money to Old Man Potter, and Old Man Potter knew of the error. But, did Uncle Billy have the intent and capability to maintain control of the money after he mistakenly passed it to Old Man Potter? I can think of several situations involving a mistaken transfer—for example, a cashier mistakenly gives a person too much change after a purchase—that may or may not satisfy the intent-and-capability test in Jones, although other theories of larceny might apply. See 3 Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 19.2(g) (2017) (discussing larceny cases from other jurisdictions involving delivery of property by mistake); see also State v. Moore, 46 N.C. App. 259 (1980) (upholding conviction of larceny of lost property).

This post must end here, without resolving Old Man Potter’s culpability (or whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie), unless you’re willing to stick around a little longer . . .

Back in the 1980s, when my wife and I lived in Los Angeles, I was taking the garbage out one night and saw the top of the tallest building in Century City, next to Twentieth Century Fox Studios, explode in a gigantic fireball. I came running back into the house yelling, “A building just blew up, a building just blew up.” My wife and I cautiously went outside, looking for damage, sniffing for smoke, and listening for sirens. Nothing. After a while, the building exploded again in pretty much the same way. I can’t remember how many takes we watched—this was the era before CGI—but I will always remember Die Hard for the scene in which the top of the “Nakatomi Plaza” explodes in a fireball.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. Welcome back.

4 comments on “Criminal Law Holiday Movies (You Might Be Surprised)

  1. […] Read more[…] […]

  2. I don’t understand how you could possibly leave out Home Alone and sequel. If these weren’t crime oriented Christmas Stories, I don’t know what is. You also have the neglectful behavior of the parents to bring in Juvenile Court.

  3. Hard to beat Home Alone as a criminal law holiday movie. You’ve got Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern committing innumerable acts of burglary and larceny, to say nothing of assault on a child under 12. It would be up to the courts to decide if young Macaulay Culkin’s parents are criminally negligent for leaving their 8 year old child alone in the house as they scurry off on vacation. At a minimum they could expect a visit from Child Protective Services. And while young Macaulay would, in all likelihood, be shielded by castle defense doctrine for his sadistic efforts to thwart Pesci and Stern from entering his family’s home, in real life Mr. Culkin has been a walking violation of Chapter 90 which should merit some consideration for the overall category.

    I’d offer that John Candy’s comedic talents were sadly wasted in the film, but that’s probably a civil issue.

  4. How about the Grinch, staring Justice Newby. Has he ever ruled for a Defendant?????? Just watch his banjo ad it sums him up.

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