Police in Michigan are looking for the person responsible for a booby-trapped Trump-Pence sign that cut a worker who was removing it because it was too close to the road. The worker required 13 stitches. In torts, we cover a long line of cases involving “snare guns” and “man traps” going back centuries. This case presents an ironic twist under that precedent.
The razor blades were taped around the edges of the sign. Township supervisor Dave Scott correctly told WDIV Local 4 that a variety of people could have been harmed by this senseless act, including children. This is an utterly senseless and reprehensible act.
Trump supporters have complained about people taking or tearing down signs and some have turned to extreme measures like a Massachusetts homeowner putting an electrical fence around his yard sign. The use of electrical fences are commonly regulated under state and local laws.
We have previously discussed such booby trap cases (here and here). The common law has long recognized the use of such devices for home or property protection as a form of battery, even when used against thieves, as in Katko v. Briney in Iowa (183 N.W.2d 657 (1971)). Marvin E. Katko was shot by a 20-gauge spring shotgun rigged by Edward Briney in an abandoned old farmhouse or shed. The building largely contained old bottles and other low value items. A jury awarded damages and the Iowa Supreme Court agreed that there was no legal privilege to use potentially lethal force in an uninhabited structure. Most states ban the use of spring guns or mantraps.
The long-standing rule against snare guns or booby traps was that they are immoral. That was the view expressed in Bird v. Holbrook in 1825 where a shotgun was used as a mantrap in the garden to protect valuable tulips. The court ruled that the owner cannot use force to cause serious bodily injury or death to protect property. By extension, he could not use a device for the same purpose since “[n]o man can do indirectly that which he is forbidden to do directly.” Not only are such devices viewed as immoral (because human life is more valuable than property), but dangerous because such devices cannot tell the difference between friend and foe.
Ironically, the court in Bird stressed that the owner did not post any signs warning of the trap. In this case, the sign was the trap.
Notably, there was a push in Michigan in 2017 to pass a law addressing booby traps after an officer was injured by trap using a bed of screws to protect a marijuana grow operation. I could not find that law in the criminal code. However, there are other laws dealing with the creation of such public hazards or dangerous conditions.
One interesting question is whether the person could be charged under Section 750.81d on the basis that he or she had reason to know that road crews regularly remove signs from along the roads:
750.81d Assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing, opposing person performing duty; felony; penalty; other violations; consecutive terms; definitions.
(1) Except as provided in subsections (2), (3), and (4), an individual who assaults, batters, wounds, resists, obstructs, opposes, or endangers a person who the individual knows or has reason to know is performing his or her duties is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both.
(2) An individual who assaults, batters, wounds, resists, obstructs, opposes, or endangers a person who the individual knows or has reason to know is performing his or her duties causing a bodily injury requiring medical attention or medical care to that person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 4 years or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both.
(3) An individual who assaults, batters, wounds, resists, obstructs, opposes, or endangers a person who the individual knows or has reason to know is performing his or her duties causing a serious impairment of a body function of that person is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 15 years or a fine of not more than $10,000.00, or both.