What lawyers can learn about criminal liability from MTV's 'Beavis and Butt-Head'
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
I was born and reared (you “raise” crops, you “rear” animals) in a small town in western Oklahoma. My upbringing was somewhat sheltered when you consider that I was an hour and a half from any major metropolitan areas. We weren’t secluded from society, though.
I’m young enough that I grew up watching MTV. The fledgling station was a constant in my home, and I thank my parents for allowing that exposure. When I was young, it was nonstop music videos. As I got older, though, the station began to incorporate a few animated series.
One of those animated shows was Beavis and Butt-Head. My parents didn’t let me watch it under their roof, but I found a way. It was edgy, vulgar and taboo—all the ingredients to entice a rebellious boy.
Some of the parents in town got wind of the show’s content, and they successfully lobbied the local cable station to remove MTV from our cable-access allotment of channels. They argued that the show was utterly devoid of any merit. In my opinion, they just didn’t look deep enough.
The episode at hand
The series originally aired from 1993 to 1997, with a very short-lived revival in 2011. You can still stream reruns on Amazon, and episodes are available on YouTube, as well. I find myself going back to the series every now and then when I need some mindless toilet humor. Recently, though, I ran across an episode titled “Kidnapped,” and it hit me right square in my law parts.
Honestly, the episode could work as a law school exam question.
Now, anyone familiar with the show is keenly aware of the title characters’ propensity for general mischief—mischief that sometimes rose to the level of criminal culpability. After all, Beavis and Butt-Head’s degenerative approach to life was one of the series’ main calling cards. Still, creator Mike Judge often used their brain-dead analysis of specific situations to comment on current events and societal issues.
“Kidnapped” begins like so many other Beavis and Butt-Head episodes: The two are lounging on their couch watching television. As they flip through the channels, they come across an advertisement for a concert they’d like to attend. Tickets are about $20 per piece, but they don’t have a dollar to share between them.
As they search through couch cushions in hopes of finding anything of value, their much-maligned (and extremely annoying) neighbor Stewart marches into the home through an open front door. He mentions the Katie Beers incident and further explains that, if they aren’t careful, they could get kidnapped, too, and held for ransom. (Beers was kidnapped and imprisoned in 1992 by a family friend, shortly before her 10th birthday. Police found her 17 days later.)
Based on Stewart’s comments, Beavis and Butt-Head invite him to stay and watch television while they hatch a harebrained scheme to “kidnap” him and get ransom from his parents. Stewart, likely short on friends, is extremely excited at the opportunity to hang out. He happily sits on the couch, while Beavis and Butt-Head leave multiple calls on his parents’ answering machine demanding money.
Kidnapping and criminal liability
So, was Stewart actually “kidnapped”? Most likely, no. But the analysis is interesting.
First and foremost, let’s review the exemplary criminal rule for kidnapping, located at Model Penal Code Section 212.1 of the American Law Institute, just for uniformity’s sake. The analysis of Beavis and Butt-Head’s actions would rest on the following language: “A person is guilty of kidnapping if … he unlawfully confines another for a substantial period in a place of isolation, with any of the following purposes: (a) to hold for ransom or reward …”
Under the facts presented in “Kidnapped,” neither Beavis nor Butt-Head unlawfully confined Stewart. They simply ask him whether he wants to watch TV with them. He comments: “This is great hanging with you guys!” Moreover, Stewart’s movement is in no way restrained, and there is never any discussion about his freedom (or lack thereof) to leave.
In fact, Stewart also mentions how much fun he’s having just hanging out in the living room. Beavis and Butt-Head, on the other hand, are not enjoying the experience. They ultimately get so frustrated with Stewart’s annoying behavior that they finally tell him to leave and get out of their house. Consequently, it would be challenging to prove that Stewart was kidnapped, at least under the Model Penal Code.
How about the federal statute (again, trying to stay uniform) for kidnapping, located at 18 U.S. Code Section 1201? I’m not going to parse the jurisdictional hook, as it’s not necessary for this discussion. For our current purposes, the thrust of the conversation turns on the statute’s introductory language: An individual is guilty of kidnapping when the suspect “unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person, except in the case of a minor by the parent thereof …”
The analysis under the federal statute is a little less clear-cut because of the inclusion of the “inveigles” and “decoys” language. It’s arguable that Beavis and Butt-Head did inveigle (persuade someone to do something through deception or flattery) Stewart to stay in their home while they “held” him for ransom.
The discussion under federal law is also more questionable because of the statute’s lack of language regarding the victim’s state of mind. Some state statutes, which mirror the text of the federal law, explicitly contain language requiring that the victim be held against their will. However, the Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions for kidnapping (I chose the 10th Circuit since that is my home state of Oklahoma’s jurisdiction) explain that kidnapping “means to unlawfully hold, keep, detain and confine the person against that person’s will. Involuntariness or coercion … is an essential part of the offense.”
It’s at least arguable that Stewart was coerced into staying at the home, since Beavis and Butt-Head were deceptive regarding their intentions. Stewart’s status as an adolescent could further the coercion aspect. It’s reasonable that a younger person might fail to appreciate the gravity of a kidnapping, especially if the captors are known and friendly. Consequently, the “fun” that Stewart has isn’t determinative of whether he is legally “kidnapped.” Nevertheless, no one could argue that Stewart was kept against his will, and the coercion aspect might not be enough to claim a conviction.
What really went down
Although the episode originally aired in 1993, creator Judge and MTV seemingly prophesized a rash of incidents that would happen 25-plus years later.
At the end of the day, Beavis and Butt-Head’s actions were more akin to a scam that they tried to perpetrate on Stewart’s family. They did not actually kidnap Stewart, but they attempted to extort money, nevertheless. During the early part of this year, various outlets reported on individuals targeted with “virtual kidnapping” scams. One such account detailed a father receiving a call from his daughter’s phone number demanding ransom for her return, while his son received a similar call from his father’s phone number in which the caller threatened to kill the father.
CNN noted that “virtual kidnappings are rattling families” across the country. Some of the scams originate from prepaid phones that aren’t registered or attributable to any one person. And while receiving any call of this nature must be horrifying, nothing could compare to a call from a spoofed phone number like the father and son discussed above. Culprits can spoof any phone number via Skype or a specialized app.
It’s difficult to imagine what lengths a family member or friend would go to in that situation. Would you contact law enforcement first or focus on complying with the demands of the “captor”?
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Law Offices of Adam R. Banner, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seem to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.