Ethics Quiz: The Barefoot Bandit Cashes In, Sort Of…


You may remember Colton Harris-Moore, aka “The Barefoot Bandit,” who while still a teen in 2009 went on a wild, two-year crime spree involving more than a hundred burglaries, thefts, and destruction, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and property, including a plane, a boat, and automobiles.  When Harris-Moore was sentenced to six and a half years in prison in 2012 , U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said, “The plea agreement makes very clear that he will not profit directly or indirectly nor will he help anyone else to profit from these crimes.”

I’d like to see the agreement. For Harris-Moore has signed a movie deal with 20th Century Fox, “waiving” the rights to his life story in exchange for the film company paying up to $1.3 million toward the $1.4 million he owes as restitution to his victims. Now I’d call this “profiting.” If someone pays what I owe on my mortgage, I benefit. I profit.

I’m sure the argument for permitting this deal, which is the kind most states and the federal government regard as contrary to public policy and prohibit with so-called “Son of Sam laws,” is that Barefoot’s victims are needy and innocent  beneficiaries, since it is unlikely that they would ever get much, if anything, in payments from the imprisoned felon. Thus the usual objective of keeping criminals from turning their crimes into cash and celebrity should yield to the greater good.

Today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Should the Barefoot Bandit be allowed to make this deal?

I’ll leave this one to you.

But I’m dubious.

20 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Barefoot Bandit Cashes In, Sort Of…

  1. “…nor will he help anyone else to profit from these crimes”

    As I see it herein lies the unethical part is, regardless if 100% of the profits from the movie go to the victims he is actually helping 20th Century Fox, their employees, and any subcontractors related to the production of the movie, and any employees of cinemas that show the movie to profit from the crimes. I really don’t have any problem if 100% of the profits from the movie deal going to the victims; however, based on the original plea agreement as you’ve stated, everyone associated with the production of the movie will be personally profiting from the crime and the criminal is helping them do that – with out his help they would not be able to produce the movie.

    In a nutshell:
    The life story of the individual behind the Barefoot Bandit isn’t worth a penny without including the criminal actions of the Barefoot Bandit, so 20th Century Fox is looking to profit from the criminal actions of the crimes committed by the Barefoot Bandit and that is against the plea agreement; therefore, the individual behind the Barefoot Bandit should NOT be allowed to make this deal.

    Here is some out of the box thinking:
    If anyone truly thinks this individual, Colton Harris-Moore, is not going to personally profit from the release of the movie, I think they are not seeing the whole picture, there are other ways to “profit” either directly or indirectly that are not necessarily in the form of cash in hand, the indirectly profiting from something can branch out to almost anything even physiologically.

    There is more than one definition for profit; how about the definition that has nothing to do with finances; “the advantage or benefit that is gained from doing something”.

  2. Why can’t the rights to the film go to his victims while he still must pay his restitution. It is the story of his victims as much as it is his story. Why can’t they be paid for the rights to the story of their victimization without it reducing his punishment?

  3. The problem is that as a “work of art”, the story can be written and then changed ever so slightly so as to provide cover for the studio that it’s their original story. Any resemblance…yada yada yada…unintentional. By signing this deal, Fox (who would have made the movie anyways) gets to market it as a true story. Additionally, there could be good that comes from a cautionary tale if it’s told properly. In the end, I think it’s okay and the victims get paid the restitution. Now…if Fox depicts any of the victims, they should have compensation.

    The real question for you Jack, is have you seen the documentary “The Seven-Five” and have you listened to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast featuring Michael Dowd, who has a studio deal in the works?

  4. I think he should be allowed to make this deal, or one very similar.

    First, one of the main reasons for prohibiting criminals from profiting from their crimes is to prevent there from being an incentive to commit the crime. Otherwise people would be tempted to commit crimes that attract public interest in order to earn money from that interest. After all, $1.3 million for 6.5 years in prison is $200,000 per year, which is probably a lot more than Colton Harris-Moore could have made at a legitimate job. These laws are designed to destroy that incentive.

    In this case, however, it’s hard to see how it’s much of an incentive. It seems unlikely that before each crime Harris-Moore would have been thinking “If I get caught and convicted, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to sell this story and therefore I won’t be saddled with personally paying restitution, therefore I have more incentive to steal this stuff.” I can’t see that being a big factor in his decision making.

    Second, these laws are in fact designed to encourage this kind of deal. In many states, the movie company making the deal would be required to deposit the money in a state-controlled account which would be used to pay claims by the victims. So rather than being contrary to public policy, using the money to pay the victims is implementing public policy.

    Third, 20th Century Fox isn’t paying Harris-Moore or his victims out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re buying the rights so they will have the sole right to make a movie from the story, and they’re making the movie because they hope to earn a profit, and they expect to earn a profit because people will want to see this movie. Disallowing the deal will mean people won’t get to see the movie. And regardless of what Harris-Moore did, moviegoers did nothing to deserve to be deprived of seeing a movie they’re willing to pay to see.

    So basically there are people out there who would be more than willing to help make the victims whole in return for seeing an entertaining movie, and this deal allows that to happen, at the possible risk of slightly increasing the incentive for the underlying crimes. I think it’s worth it.

    • “So basically there are people out there who would be more than willing to help make the victims whole in return for seeing an entertaining movie, and this deal allows that to happen, at the possible risk of slightly increasing the incentive for the underlying crimes. I think it’s worth it.”

      Gee. Ethics. Let’s see. This guy got out from under by having his story made into an movie with some (famous?) actor playing him! Now he’s a celebrity (which could be worth some guest appearances, a book deal, maybe a tv series, huh?) and he’s made a Name … OR so if I made my crime just a weeee bit more interesting …. OR getting some money back makes up for the fear he caused when he crashed a plane into our “rural” area or burgled our home — my family and my business and I suffered more than “lost” cash in the first place (does money make us “whole” now?), and this asshole gets to be famous for it … OR Sir, do you really think it’s worth prosecuting this as theft? After all, they had a camera on him all the time and said they were making a movie and planned to return all the money … OR I don’t see why I got punished for taking the candy bar. Stealing’s not such a big thing. My folks were talking about this fun movie where the guy ran around without his shoes on, robbed banks and everything; I mean like he’ll do some time, not have to work or go to school or nothing and get free food and all, and then he comes out, like, a movie star …. slam dunk, oKAY.

      • OR Oh, hey, Mister Movie-Maker, how about getting all the rest of us reimbursed for crimes done to us? Or might there be a question of my being entitled to such reimbursement: Was my property well enough protected? physically? by insurance? How much do you pay someone for their shock and fear? Were there consequences to the thefts? …. oh never mind. Shit DOES happen. I have a choice: I can clean it up and go about my business, or I can leave it sitting there where everyone can see it, stir it up every so often to get the smell circulating again, have parties around it, start up an organization or get famous talking about My Shit. Conclusion: the deal is not ethical on any level.

  5. Hmm, that is tough. His victims are the ones benefiting and I don’t think the law was intended to prevent their compensation. He’s in jail, so it’d be a long time of ever that they’d get anything. He’s young enough that there may be some hope he might straighten up, but how can he try with being that far in the hole? He shouldn’t have, but young and stupid spree shouldn’t be a permanent thing. And if he’s going to be stupid enough to not stay out of trouble and prison, he will never do the restitution.

    Based on life stories should compensate the people who paid, the victims, not just the movie company. It’s the victims’ story too.

    • #1: He started at 12 — got caught at 20 with convictions and jail time in between: that’s not a “spree” (nor was it “stupid” as far as criminal behavior goes) it’s a profession.
      #2: He’s not the one “in the hole” (in the vernacular, are those still in prison practice?), his victims are. He is not bound to restitution after he gets out.

  6. If the victims agreed to it, I would bet that a judge had to sign off on it , then why not? Also if he didn’t funnel the money to his victims they most likely would have got nothing.

  7. In a subtle way every mention of this kid and his crimes makes him seem more cool and more of a hero. He’s Butch Cassidy by now. So cool to commit a crime that tells a great story. Let the story go and this kid fade into obscurity. We don’t need anymore cool ways to commit crime.

  8. Too bad indentured servitude to pay off restitution is out of style, haha!

    There’s a hidden catch in this:

    If this is just the movie makers paying off the victims via a legal technicality making the criminal a sort of “middle man”, then the criminal is STILL not paying restitution.

    IF the criminal is acknowledged to be getting paid for his CRIMES, the proceeds of which are then taken to pay his restitution, then the LAW is violated that he not profit from his crimes.

    But what exactly does that mean? When we say crime (in this case burglary) doesn’t pay, we are saying that the punishment (should it be inflicted) is WORSE than the temporary material pay-off of the thefts. Paying him for his life story (though it was sensationalized due to the crimes) should still be seen as a separate issue.

    I think the real kink in all of this is that the movie makers even need to pay this jerk anything for the so-called rights to his life story. He forfeit those rights when he made himself a *public* figure THROUGH his criminal pursuits. Why wouldn’t the movie makers get to make an entire movie about him WITHOUT his consent? Then a collectivized interest COULD form on behalf of the victims, who’s *private* lives are involved in the story and therefore do have a right to their life stories. The movie makers can negotiate with them. Forget the thug.

    Of course, if the movies makers were to strike a deal with the victims for their collective life stories, we still have an issue that the Criminal in question, the little jerk, CANNOT pay the required restitution to the victims.

    Unfortunately, I think that is just a painful side-effect…I don’t think most victims of thievery are every fully paid for their losses…indeed a component of the losses CAN NEVER be paid back in any case.

    Like I said…too bad indentured servitude for the duration necessary to pay off losses is out of style…haha.

    • I agree. I think you could probably work in (for an example) “United 93”. You didn’t see the studio signing deals with the next of kin of the terrorists from 9/11. Perhaps all criminals should be considered “public figures”.

      Of course – guess the purpose is so that they have the cooperation and an assertion that the facts are correct and there won’t be a case for libel/slander.

        • No…I was just thinking that in a movie, there’s a lot of character development and nuance. If a director or actor reads the script one way and makes a portrayal in a critical scene – Johnny MacStabber might come off as a pedophile or a rapist in addition to a bloody killer. If he didn’t actually covet children or rape anyone, but the movie leaves that assumption for the audience to infer – does this killer now have an open avenue to reparations? “I tell ya, I’m a bloody killer, but I ain’t no pedophile.”

          Documentaries which are focused on the facts more than the narrative and character development are probably more safe in just presenting the evidence…..but, artistic dramatic movies? They’re out for art, facts be damned. If the killer isn’t scary enough and needs to have a “rape-y” vibe to him for the audience to detest him, by god, they’ll give him a “rape-y” vibe.

          • I figured that’s where you were coming from, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t confused on the law, slander and libel often baffle me.

            Of course, I wouldn’t see any issue with leaving the door open to the Criminal suing for such on grounds unrelated to the crime. Who cares if that increases the risk to the movie makers…they’re the ones who want to sensationalize a jerk.

  9. Side topic: Whoever is billing this guy as the “Jesse James” of Puget sound must not have done much research on Jesse James…

    This Colton Harris-Moore kid doesn’t strike me as the bi-product of Lost Cause frustration and inability to reintegrate into post-war life…nor was he involved in serious gang-land intrigue and not one shoot-out to his name…not ONE.

    I did read a short biography of the jerk. No father figure after age 12 and before age 12, his father was abusive.

    Ding ding.

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