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Nine comic books arranged on a white background.
Some comic books from the personal collection of the author. Photo by Emma Southern.

Real-Life Superheroes and the Law

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The following is a guest post by Emma Southern, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress during the summer of 2022. She was a student of communication, legal institutions, economics, and government (CLEG) at American University in Washington, D.C.

Superheroes have been part of pop culture for almost nine decades in the United States. While superheroes live in the realm of fiction, their motivation to help others is authentic and they may inspire regular people to act in heroic ways. However, in real life, there are limitations to what an ordinary civilian can do in the face of evil or maybe just illegal acts that do not quite reach the threshold for evil-supervillain worthiness.

Whether an alien, a metahuman, an inhuman, a mutant, something else entirely, or just a human, comic book superheroes are (usually) private citizens. While we can only speculate about the laws governing fictional places such as Gotham City (home of Batman) or Dakota City (home of Static), we can look into some real state and local laws formed around civilian acts of service. Laws and standards exist for civilians who are presented with situations that enable or require them to act heroically. This is just a sampling of some of those concepts, not legal advice for the superheroes among you.

Good Samaritan

The term “Good Samaritan” comes from the Biblical parable about a person (a Samaritan) who assists an injured traveler (a stranger) without any benefit to himself. (Luke 10:30-37.) Today, a Good Samaritan is considered to be a person who “provides care without expectation of payment.” Though each is unique, Good Samaritan laws, generally provide some level of protection against liability for an individual who aids another person in an emergency.

In the state of California, for example, the Health and Safety Code § 1799.102 states, “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.” The law holds exceptions for when an emergency occurs in a location that offers medical care.

Many states also have specific laws related to drug overdoses. New York has a 911 Good Samaritan Law (N.Y. Public Health Law § 3308) that protects “everyone—regardless of age—who seeks medical help for themselves or someone else during an overdose” and the person who has overdosed.

Citizen’s Arrest

As defined by the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, a citizen’s arrest is “an arrest made by a private citizen” which is “lawful in certain limited situations.” These situations vary by state, and speculation over its use has been a source of controversy. The purpose of a citizen’s arrest is to maintain safety or peace in an immediate situation where law enforcement is not present. Again, these situations are limited and clarified in state statutes and common law.

For example, a Texas law allows a private citizen to arrest someone without a warrant when an “offense is committed in his presence or within his view” (Tex. Code of Crim. Proc. art. 14.01) that is either a felony or disturbs the public peace. An Illinois law, with a broader scope, allows for arrest upon “reasonable grounds to believe that an offense other than an ordinance violation is being committed.” (725 Ill. Comp. Stat.  /107-3.) A California law allows citizens to arrest another person for a witnessed public offense, an unwitnessed committed felony, or reasonable cause for a committed felony. (Cal. Penal Code § 837.)

Third-Party Defense

Another topic covered by state legislatures is third-party defense, or defense of others, which concerns the “defense of a person other than oneself.” A third-party defense law in Pennsylvania (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 506) allows for the “use of force […] to protect a third person” provided the situation would justify an act of self-protection and the “intervention is necessary for the protection of such other person.” Similarly, Wisconsin law permits a third party to defend a person if that intervention is “necessary for the protection” of the person and would otherwise be permitted to act in self-defense. (Wis. Stat. § 939.48.)

A third-party defense law in Maine (Me. Stat. tit. 17-A, § 108) breaks down the justifications for a person to use a “reasonable degree of nondeadly force” or “deadly force.” The differentiation stems from the instigating action that is perceived by the third party as “imminent” and either “unlawful, nondeadly force” or “unlawful, deadly force” (leading to a proportional response).

These laws can be used as a defense if the third party who intervenes is charged with unwarranted force against the original instigator. They are meant to protect individuals from liability should they defend another person from harm. However, since these laws rely on human perception, each situation would be subjective and determined by the law of the jurisdiction.


While private citizens in the real world do not have alien, magical or scientifically-induced superpowers (that we know of), they can still act in service to others. The ideals held by fictional superheroes I read about—justice, freedom, safety, and compassion—are shared by real-life superheroes who seek to help. Good intentions are certainly important when considering actions, but it is also essential to know what is protected under the laws of your jurisdiction.

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