And here’s some more of my world building that’s hopefully useful to someone running a supers game.
Secret Identity Rights, also referred to as Mask Rights, are a legal precedent that prevent police and other legal authorities in the United States from publicly unmasking any individual, and provide stiff rules of secrecy for authorities that discover a masked individual’s identity. They are part of a larger culture of legal vigilantism.
In essence, unless an individual in a mask and operating under a code name voluntarily and publicly reveals his or her real identity, or gives the authorities explicit permission to do so, anyone involved in revealing the identity can be subjected to lawsuits, and may even be criminally implicated if the revelation of identity led directly to violent retaliation against the previously masked individual or friends and family.
The rights were set as precedent when the Supreme Court ruled against the state in Roger Rose vs. New York (usually referred to as Red Blade vs. New York). Additional clarifications for the protection of masked criminals were established in Elizabeth Ardry vs. Illinois (usually referred to as The Dragoness vs. Illinois).
The United States has always had a larger population of declared powered individuals than the average for the rest of the world. Experts believe that this is a combination of the country being a high priority immigration target even for supers and a history of comics and other tales of masked crimefighters from before the beginning of Rosen-Tesla Events. By 1952, there were over twenty masked vigilantes active in the the country, most of them operating out of New York City.
One of the vigilantes, Red Blade, was frequently at odds with the city police. He used a sword, and would frequently maim or injure criminals, particularly those that were (allegedly) part of the Mafia. After several warnings, and two deaths which he claimed were self defense, the police arrested him and unmasked him as Roger Rose prior to trial. While he was in custody, his family members were murdered, and most agree that it was payback for his crusade on organized crime.
He sued the city for their deaths, declaring that their revelation of his identity had led directly to the murders. The case reached the Supreme Court and was decided in his favor, establishing several precedents.
In 1955, a similar challenge (by an assassin that styled herself The Dragoness but who was revealed to be Elizabeth Ardry when finally captured) made it through the courts and established that these rights extended to those that had never presented themselves as crimefighters. Like Roger Rose, Elizabeth Ardry’s friends and family members had been killed as payback for her actions, a situation that might have been avoided if her identity had been kept secret after her incarceration.
Acceptance of and Restrictions on Vigilantism
In addition to the effects on protection of identities, the initial ruling required states to come up with solid laws on vigilantism that took into account the use of super powers, with the encouragement to not drive those that would use their powers for the good of the public to be forced to be seen as criminals. The states complied, and most came up with some variation on the following rules:
- Powered individuals may follow the normal hiring processes and requirements to join local police forces or similar state and federal agencies (e.g., FBI, marshals, etc.). They may then work as masked members of these forces when employing their powers. Most require an unmasked partner for the hero, to prevent accusations of a secret police.
- Masked vigilantes may make citizen’s arrests, and may use powers in the pursuit of these arrests and to prevent crimes. As with all citizen’s arrests, wrongfully accused individuals can issue lawsuits or request criminal charges be filed, particularly if they were injured by the vigilante. In these cases, the masked individual has a right to face the accuser without revealing his or her identity. In all cases, vigilantes are expected to follow directions given by actual police officers in regards to a suspect or operation, and are often arrested if refusal to follow these instructions leads to harm or failure of the police action.
- Masked vigilantes suspected of criminal acts may reveal their identity to the authorities in order to establish an alibi or otherwise prove that they are being framed. Most jurisdictions have strong regulations for this, often having a small set of individuals that have gone through specific training courses on how to keep this identity secret. Sometimes, the members of the department allowed to know this information are, themselves, kept secret to prevent blackmail for a hero’s identity.
These rules do vary from state to state and city to city, with some being even more permissive (e.g., Texas is famous for its citizen superheroes) or less (e.g., Los Angeles, California expects all powered crimefighting to be done by police officers).
Implications of the Rule
Masked individuals frequently come under scrutiny when believed to have committed crimes or when interfering with police investigations or operations. Known vigilantes are often asked to come in for interrogation willingly, and accorded privileges if they comply, including being given the benefit of the doubt. They are often interrogated with their mask still on, and only divulge their identity to trustworthy officers to establish an alibi. Conversely, known criminals are not given such benefits, and are interrogated unmasked. The number of individuals that know their identities is kept small, though, to reduce the chance of later lawsuits if the identity is leaked. When and if either type of individual comes to trial, masks are left on during the trial.
If convicted, powered individuals must often be kept in specially designed penitentiaries anyway, so their identities are kept secret even after conviction. Most are kept in solitary confinement, and allowed to wear a mask when situations require interaction with anyone other than trusted guards.
Main Article: Vigilantism Worldwide
Variations on the United States methods are common in many countries, particularly members of the European Union. Notable exceptions are Russia, China, and Japan, where all powered crimefighters are required to operate under the aegis of government agencies, and masked vigilantes are treated the same as masked criminals. This tendency of Communist states to require supers to register was integral in convincing the United States of the 1950s to allow vigilantes.
After the end of the Cold War and the climactic battle between Liberty and The Hammer, public opinion began to disfavor masked vigilantes. In the 1990s and early 2000s, most jurisdictions began to announce that any vigilantism, particularly by powered individuals, would be considered interference with the police. However, with the recent resurgence of powered criminals and post-9/11, many jurisdictions are considering reopening the door to masked heroes.