A Post Eclipsing All My Other Ones

It’s solar eclipse day! Millions of North Carolinians will see today’s eclipse, with those in the far western end of the state experiencing totality. As is my custom when exceedingly rare things happen, I’ll mark the occasion by writing about some things that go beyond our usual subject matter.

The truth is, in addition to being a sentencing nerd, I’m also a space nerd. (And a baseball nerd. And a Star Wars nerd. Oh man, I might just be a nerd.) One year I drove my kids back and forth to Cape Canaveral five times to see a shuttle launch that kept getting scrubbed for weather and technical difficulties. Totally worth it. Suffice it to say the eclipse has been kind of a big deal at our house.

With that in mind, I did a little thinking about whether it could have any criminal law implications. Most ideas were a stretch. For example, could a break-in that happened during the eclipse be considered a burglary by virtue of happening at “night”? North Carolina doesn’t define the “nighttime” element of burglary statutorily, but instead adheres to the common law definition of “that time after sunset and before sunrise when it is so dark that a man’s face cannot be identified except by artificial light or moonlight.” State v. Brown, 221 N.C. App. 383 (2012). It’ll be that dark in the places falling in the path of totality, but I don’t think passing through the moon’s shadow qualifies as a sunset.

A few other motor vehicle provisions came to mind. Required lighting equipment of vehicles under G.S. 20-129, for example, requires lighted headlamps and rear lamps from sunset to sunrise and “[w]hen there is not sufficient light to render clearly discernible any person on the highway at a distance of 400 feet ahead.” So, if you’re in such a hurry to get somewhere that you’re driving during totality, lights on, please.

Aside from those provisions—and, perhaps, the potential for fraud crimes related to those phony eclipse glasses or a Hank Morgan–style claim to have caused the event with magic—I don’t see much criminal law impact.

If you broaden your search a little, however, you can find a handful of cases nationally that mention solar eclipse. Here are a few highlights.

Schools may wish to take note of Versprill v. School Board of Orange County, 641 So. 2d 883 (Fla. Ct. App. 1994), a case in which an elementary school student sued the schools for an eye injury he suffered when looking (the wrong way) through a pinhole camera. The issue in the case was whether the school had a duty to supervise him while he was on school premises. It did. (NASA’s instructions on how to build and use a pinhole projector are here.)

Green v. Wilson, 565 N.W.2d 813 (Mich. 1997), resolved a personal jurisdiction issue in a lawsuit stemming from a car accident in Canada caused by a motorist who had become intoxicated in Michigan. The case had nothing to do with an actual solar eclipse, but the court analogized to one to explain the interplay between states’ long-arm statutes and the Due Process Clause. Some states’ statutes extend as far as the constitution allows—“[l]ike a complete solar eclipse, the due process and statutory analyses overlap entirely.” Id. at 816. Others are “akin to a partial solar eclipse, with part of the statute granting jurisdiction within the permissible constitutional scope and part of the statute possibly outside it.” Id. 

Finally, United States v. Domitrovich, 852 F. Supp. 1460 (E.D. Wash. 1994), involved a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of a large marijuana grow operation run out the Solar Eclipse Tanning Salon. Again, the case had nothing to do with an actual eclipse, but the cleverness of running not one but two businesses reliant on artificial sunlight out of a place with that name seemed worth mentioning. The federal district judge wasn’t amused: motion denied.

I hope you’re able to take a break from your work today to enjoy the eclipse. Best wishes for clear skies, manageable traffic, and safe travels. I hope my kids will look skyward with the same sense of wonder they felt seeing the shuttle leave the Earth, with new perspective on their place in a celestial clockwork as big as their imagination.

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