Vigilante justice, meet the justice system

By Legal Eagle

Photo from GQ

“Phoenix Jones”, a self-styled superhero vigilante (complete with home made body armour) has ended up on the wrong side of the law. The Herald Sun reports that Phoenix could be charged by police after he intervened in what he thought was a fight and allegedly pepper sprayed a number of people:

Phoenix Jones – known for his black and yellow bulletproof and stabproof outfit – was arrested and spent the night behind bars after the incident.

A supporter of his vigilante actions recorded the clash on video, with footage released to news website Publicola yesterday showing one of the females involved chasing Mr Jones and hitting him with her handbag and shoes.

Mr Jones says he was breaking up a fight when he sprayed four people with pepper spray, but footage appears not to show any confrontation between his victims, who told police they were singing and dancing as they walked home under an overpass when Mr Jones attacked.

Jones is one of a number of homemade superheroes to have sprung up in the US following the release of the 2010 movie “Kick Ass,” about a suburban teenager who turns to crime fighting in a green and yellow wetsuit.

In January, Mr Jones said, “When I walk into a neighbourhood, criminals leave because they see the suit. I symbolize that the average person doesn’t have to walk around and see bad things and do nothing.”

But a week later, after Jones had his nose broken after injecting himself into a fight, Seattle police detective Mark Jamieson warned him and other self-styled superheroes, “Don’t insert yourself into those situations. If you see something, call 911.”

Yesterday, as Mr Jones, 23, waited to hear whether charges would be laid for the pepper spray incident, he claimed the officer who arrested him had a vendetta against him and said he and his family had gone into hiding.

Mr Jones – whose real name is Benjamin John Francis Fodor – was arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree assault and posted bail Sunday afternoon. He is scheduled to appear in court Thursday, The Seattle Times reported.

One of Phoenix’s supporters has videoed the incident, and it is available for viewing here.

Apparently there is a growing movement of self-styled superheros, according to GQ’s profile of such superheroes in August this year, which featured Phoenix very prominently:

Phoenix didn’t know this when he first donned the suit about a year ago, but he’s one of around 200 real-life superheroes currently patrolling America’s streets, looking for wrongs to right. There’s DC’s Guardian, in Washington, who wears a full-body stars-and-stripes outfit and wanders the troubled areas behind the Capitol building. There’s RazorHawk, from Minneapolis, who was a pro wrestler for fifteen years before joining the RLSH movement. There’s New York City’s Dark Guardian, who specializes in chasing pot dealers out of Washington Square Park by creeping up to them, shining a light in their eyes, and yelling, “This is a drug-free park!” And there are dozens and dozens more. Few, if any, are as daring as Phoenix. Most undertake basically safe community work: helping the homeless, telling kids to stay off drugs, etc. They’re regular men with jobs and families and responsibilities who somehow have enough energy at the end of the day to journey into America’s neediest neighborhoods to do what they can.

I can’t help thinking about the seminal comic book series, Watchmen, can you? Who guards the guardians? In this case, it appears that the long arm of the law is concerned to fill that role.


  1. Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I like how his last name is an anagram of ‘Frodo’.

  2. RipleyP
    Posted October 13, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I get playing dress up as super hero; I get doing the superhero thing to pass the message about drugs etc to kids,

    Stepping into a fight spraying pepper spray wearing the costume (cracker costume, nicely made though codpiece a bit over the top, so to speak), now that’s a whole level I don’t get in this case.

    Of course this now opens up the potential for debate on whether there is a moral or legal imperative to intervene in situations of a type the hero believed was occurring.

    I wonder if the hero can claim a mistaken belief of fact as defense against assault charges, he undertook to act as a Samaritan in the mistaken belief there was an altercation and persons were in danger.

    I would love to represent this chap at trial for the assault but only if he wore his outfit throughout the trial. The court could do with some color

    I have very rarely stepped into a fight. Yet there have been occasions where I have done it to prevent the antagonists hurting each other but mainly to stop their fray affecting other things such as my table of drinks (back when I drank that is).

    Usually it is just a case of separating the opponents by getting in the way of their fight. I am confident to intervene as I am a practicing martial artist and lawyer (I seem to love a life of conflict,) but with a little age backing me up I now have to question whether it is right to intervene.

    The Queensland Criminal Code does offer self defense as a defense for me intervening in an assault situation so legally if I do so with the reasonable belief someone is going to be killed or suffer GBH I am on ok legal grounds so long as my level of violence is proportional.

    On one hand I feel there is a moral duty to help those in need such as helping a person who is hurt on the side of the road. I would offer help to a person recently assaulted.

    Yet should I step into a situation where an assault is taking place?

    There is always the danger that things are not as they seem as found out by our hero.

    Alas the superhero has such an ethical minefield to walk through to reach the path of truth and justice.

    Maybe that’s why I like superheros. The villains are always bad and the course of action is clear. Villains also wear uniforms of other symbols so we can recognize them easily.

  3. Posted October 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. There is evidence that people engage in vigilante justice, duelling and other forms of non-official ‘payback’ when there is a rule of law failure, or where a law is needed to undermine a particular violent phenomenon.

    This is why I always have to do a quick history of duelling and reputational gang assaults when confronted by libertarian purists who want to get rid of the tort of defamation or the delict of iniuria (the latter being the Roman law equivalent).

  4. Posted October 13, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    I love the film “Mystery Men” … and I suspect these suited vigilantes are actually more pathetic and with less fulfilling non-suited lives than the B-grade (or F-grade?) heroes in that flick.

    (I wonder, like the even more pathetic despite actual powers “Captain Amazing”, the rubber suits of these guys will get sponsorship logos)

  5. Patrick
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    But yes, SL, I also agree – there’s some kind of rule of law failure if people are impelled to become vigilantes like this.

    Really? The failure is not of law but of ‘rule of society’, arguably in part a result of excessively ‘good’ (in the contained technical sense not the moral sense) rule of law. See eg JS Mill (or surprisingly relatedly, AV Dicey).

    Three main causes leap to mind:
    1 – the welfare state and associated ‘socialisation’, aka de-individualisation, of communal responsibility for others (yes I’m libertarian but I still have a point; no this doesn’t mean we would necessarily be better off or even less violent without it);
    2 – the WoD and its effective emasculation of the police qua police; and
    3 – the erosion of community boundaries and associated atomisation (yes I’m still libertarian but this appears to be an issue all the same).

    Needs some sociological study, methinks.

    Heaven forfend.

  6. kvd
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I always liked Defendor with Woody Harrelson. But then I have a general soft spot for Harrelson. I think he died at the end of the movie, but I’m not sure if he ever met JS Mill.

    That ‘fourth-degree assault’ charge. Was that ’cause he sprayed four people, or is it related to burns?

  7. RipleyP
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks LE, A pin stripe suit, really I would have avoided stripes and stayed with the bold matt-finish look.

    I think my local magistrate would have been fine with the super hero suit on its own.

  8. Mel
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I think we may need a super hero to bring down the evil Murdoch Empire.

  9. Adrien
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    That’s really weird. I found out about these guys a couple months ago from a very different source to you LE.

    Some of this lot are serious. Seriously in need of sex. 🙂

  10. Adrien
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    There is evidence that people engage in vigilante justice, duelling and other forms of non-official ‘payback’ when there is a rule of law failure

    One of the more serious bunches is the New York Initiative. I saw video of one of their meetings and they were having a confab about crime statistic manipulation and how the police force generally concentrates on fining people. There’s a sense that the NYPD has become another revenue stream for the Machine.

    One of their members is gay (he’s the unmasked guy). He’s also the one who looks, bodywise, most like an actual hero. He acts as a goat to snare homophobic thugs.

    Then there’s Chaim Lazaros aka Life. He’s a very Jewish superhero.

    Then there’s the dude with the steroid addiction and the custom made Trans-Am, goes with his suit (red, yellow cape, man boobs, steroid addiction). Ay carumba!!

  11. Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    (1) The African-American has the best outfit. That figures: black American culture has been defining stylish masculinity (for good or ill) for a while now.

    (2) Reading this discussion, my mind went here.

  12. Patrick
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, the unmasked one looks the most, bodywise, like an actual hero??

  13. Adrien
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, the unmasked one looks the most, bodywise, like an actual hero??

    It helps if you see the videos, he’s the fittest one. The others are suburbanites wearing a lot of body armour.

  14. kvd
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I’m wondering if you would take the time to read, and maybe comment upon, the links and content of this comment thread over at Jim Belshaw’s place.

    I apologise for diverting from this diverting thread, but thought it mildly important, and wonder why such legislation is not (yet?) attracting comment.

  15. kvd
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Nothing to do with Jim’s interesting post LE. All to do with first link in first comment. Passed with the support of all parties, it was reported.

  16. Posted October 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    kvd: yes, there is a similarity with the packaged sub-prime mortgages which were such a disaster in the US.

    There are also differences: including Australian bankruptcy law is rather harsher.

    My basic comment is that the Oz housing market does not need any more credit pushed into it.

  17. kvd
    Posted October 16, 2011 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks Lorenzo; agree. I just stare in fascination at something ‘saving’ $140M for a few basis points on 8% of the loan book, with the Aus$ going up and down by 10 percent in the space of months.

    Also, sincere congratulations on the radio spot. Will look forward to listening to your comments.

  18. Posted October 16, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Also, sincere congratulations on the radio spot

    Ok, I’ve missed something here. Radio spot? Lorenzo? Please tell me more?


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