Law dopers What will I be charged with?

Let’s say you take these plastic baggies full of white powder, mark them “poison” with a magic marker, and place them in a locked drawer. Burglar comes in, breaks the lock, opens the baggies and tastes a small sample of the substance. It numbs the tongue like fine cocaine. He indulges himself.

Half an hour later, his corpse is found on the lawn. What he thought was cocaine was in fact, a poisonous white powder that merely resembled cocaine and had similar anesthetic effects in small doses.

Can the DA reasonably bring charges against you and win? You clearly marked them as poison and restricted access to them by means of a lock.

So if I keep a loaded gun in my house, knowing that there are criminals in the neighborhood staging break-ins, and my house is broken into, and the burglar shoots himself with my gun, I’m liable for murder?

What if instead of a loaded gun, the third step on the stair is starting to go. I know that, but don’t fix it, thinking that if my house is broken into, it’ll provide a fine defense. A burglar breaks into my house, steps on that stair, falls, and dies. Murder?

What if I am on prescription medication, and I relabel all my pill bottles, putting my heart medication into a bottle marked “women’s troubles during PMS.” My PMS-ing burglar, slowed by cramps, takes a few of the pills, enough to kill her, and she in fact dies. Murder?

Without a discussion of the elements of the various crimes posited, I’m not finding this discussion particularly helpful. Consider whether the OP has the mens rea necessary for murder; I don’t see it. Recklessness, maybe, but not murder. And is the actus rea sufficient for murder?

I think it’s a tort, at best, a la the spring gun cases Otto raised.

Isn’t this significantly different from any spring gun case though? I was under the impression that the general prohibition against booby traps was the safety of people such as law enforcement and fire fighters who would have a legal and legitimate reason to enter the property without consent of the owner. In this case the trap posed no danger to anyone entering for legitimate reasons.

If this is the case, and the owner is acting in defense of his property while not posing a general danger, can he be charged even if intent could be shown (such as from an internet message board post)?

The spring gun case (at least, the one I’m thinking of) was prosecuted as a crime, manslaughter.

Is this set up I described really a booby trap? Can anyone tell me if this falls into the legal definition of a bobby trap? I know it’s wrong ( I guess that would be a GD question) but I didn’t really think of it as a booby trap.

Again though I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and input.

As an aside Poly, can you clue me into to Lazarus Long? Google isn’t playing nice with my blackberry right now and I can’t look it up.

I’m not commenting on the law question (I don’t do that anymore), but LL is a long-lived Heinlein character with some interesting philosophical views.

I didn’t know what Polycarp was referring to with this Lazarus Long character and had to look it up.

I have no qualms regarding plagiarism and other kinds of word theft, and hope to do it as much as possible, but not having heard of the character or having read any of Heinlien other than Stranger in a Strange land (in the 60s), I’m afraid I’ll reluctantly have to plead “Not guilty” to that particular charge.

So is it worth reading?

For all of the above scenarios, keep your mouth shut and hire a good lawyer. Make the prosecution work to prove its case against you.

Would taking a snort of powdered draino instantly kill someone? I assume that after the first part of the first snort the burglar would know it is not cocaine and would stop snorting it. I’m sure it would cause damage but is it really that poisonous?

If it were a household product in your scenario I just don’t see how the prosecution could build a solid case against you without your confessing to what you did. It’d be the burglars’ words against yours, assuming at least one of them survived, and considering their occupation and apparent stupidity (snorting unknown substances), they wouldn’t be reliable enough witnesses to build a case around.

You might be in more danger though if the substance was not a usual household chemical, say it was strychnine or arsenic or dioxin, you might have a more difficult time explaining why you possessed those substances in the first place.

What if burglarizing drug dealer doesn’t snort it but goes straight out to the street corner and sells it to a school child who promptly snorts it and drops dead. Who is your murderer there?


I agree with Campion. There aren’t enough facts in the original OP. My blue book answer would be at least 30 minutes long. Everyone has described an actual answer (though not all exactly law school material).

My answer, for the quoted above, my short answer, assuming that the drug dealer somehow knew he was selling drugs, is that the drug dealer can most likely be found guilty of felony murder (assuming the laws are the same as in my jurisdiction). The felony would be the actual crime of selling what the dealer contends is drugs (assuming again there is some criminal law regarding the intent to sell drugs whether the substance be drugs or not). Likewise, as in the OP, some jurisdictions have a felony murder rule that can even elevate simple torts into murder, e.g. poaching on the King’s lands where the penalty is clearly civil (like a fine or the turning over of the meat).

Steps up and pulls out my unabridged collection of antcedotes.

My FIL’s first wife killed herself by taking a swig of Draino. Attempting suicide was a hobby of hers as was getting loaded on everything imaginable. Apparently, there was a similar bottle of some type of medicine in the house and one theory is that she was out of her mind and grabbed the wrong one. Heinous death ensued. Her children (my wife’s older siblings) never heard the details but I have and it sound like a horrible way to die.

I think a similar rationale would apply as with a spring gun. What if the burglar doesn’t consume the poison himself but instead sells it to an unsuspecting teenager? What if the homeowner’s child has a party and a guest finds the poison and tries it? Or slips it into somebody’s drink as a prank?

The bottom line is that we don’t want people setting lethal booby traps.

For these types of questions, I find it helpful to go to the statutory definitions of the crime in the relevant jurisdiction. I’ll pick New York (because that’s the law I’m most familiar with, though I should warn you that I know little of criminal law beyond what I learned in my first year of law school). New York’s Penal Law defines the homicide crimes in Article 125.

Second degree (non-capital) murder is defined, in relevant part as: "With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person. Could you be prosecuted under this statute? Well, assuming the burglar (or anyone else) dies from the drain cleaner, we’ve “cause[d] the death of such person or a third person.” The one question would be if you can be shown to have an intent to cause death.

Intent can sometimes be difficult to prove. If you (while conscious and sane) point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, it is pretty clear that you intentionally shot the person, but laying out the baggies of drain cleaner is more ambiguous. However, if the police and prosecution could find evidence that you set out the drain cleaner with intent to kill the burglars (like, for instance, you bragged about your scheme to your buddies), it seems prettly likely that you could be convicted of intentional murder.

Next on the homicide hit parade is First Degree (intentional or voluntary) Manslaughter, which is defined, in relevant part, as: “With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person.” This could be proven if you showed you intended to seriously injure (but not kill) the burglars, but they died anyway.

Second Degree (reckless or involuntary) Manslaughter is defined, in relevant part as: “He recklessly causes the death of another person.” The question here is what is recklessness. Penal Law section 15.05 defines recklessness as:

  1. “Recklessly.” A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts recklessly with respect thereto.The key to recklessness is that you knew of a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” and disregarded that risk. Even if you didn’t intend to cause death or injury, it seems clear from the hypothetical that by placing the unmarked drain cleaner where the burglars would likely find it shows knowledge of the risk of them finding and using, and a disregard of the risk that they could die thereby. As such, there’s a good chance that you could be conviced of reckless manslaughter.

The lowest rung on the homicide ladder is criminally negligent homicide, defined in relevant part as: " with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person." Criminal negligence is defined as: “A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.” If they can’t get you on recklessness, they may well get a conviction on the basis that leaving unmarked baggies of drain cleaner disguised as drugs lying about is criminal negligence.

So, whether or not you did the world a favor by setting the cokeheads up for their demise, there’s a good chance that you could be convicted of one of the levels of homicide. Which one would depend on the discretionary charging decision of the local prosecutor and the particular culpable mental state (intent to kill, intent to injure, recklessness or criminal negligence) the prosecution could demonstrate to the jury.

just make sure you put enough bags to kill the whole bunch. Legal prosecution might seem like a minor inconvenience compared to disfigured thugs looking for revenge.

That is an Law and Order episode if I’ve ever heard one. Kid drops dead and they track it to snorting something, discovering it to be draino. Eventually they trace the drug dealer who says that he thought it was good stuff and admits to the theft in order to try and dodge a murder wrap. They finally get to the home owner and spend the rest of the episode trying to build a case after having started the trial (why do they do this?). Finally, just when it looks like the guy will get off, they happen upon a certain message board post that cinches their case.