Santa Claus: Benefactor or Burglar?

December 16, 2015

Santa Burglar croppedIn a few weeks, Santa Claus is coming to town.

While that is an exciting prospect for the vast majority of children who celebrate Christmas, it’s apparently a terrifying thought to my four-year-old son.

And the reason for his trepidation is this: he does not want Santa to come into our house while everyone is sleeping.  Instead, he has instructed my wife and I to meet Santa outside the house and take the presents inside by ourselves.

While having this discussion with my son, it actually occurred to me that, legally, Santa has no right to enter anyone’s house uninvited in the middle of the night.

Putting aside his imaginary status for the moment, of course, it seems bizarre that part of the mythology of Santa is that he just lets himself into people’s homes and consumes their foodstuffs.  Black’s Law Dictionary has a word for that: burglary.

Sure, some could argue that Santa’s not really committing a crime because:

  1. He only enters those houses in which he was invited;
  2. He assumes those foodstuffs left out for him were intended for him to eat by the home’s residents; and
  3. He leaves behind property of a greater value than what he takes.

Again suspending the fact that Santa Claus is fictional, let’s look at each of these in turn.

First, how does Santa know that he has the homeowner’s consent to enter a given house?  While most people wouldn’t press charges against Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick for entering their homes on Christmas Eve, the fact remains that if anyone did, Santa wouldn’t have much in the way of solid evidence to support his contention that his entry was consensual.

And while we’re at it, it doesn’t seem likely that any consent received one Christmas would automatically carry over to future Christmases.   In other words, if Santa wanted to insulate himself from criminal or civil liability, he would need to receive specific permission to enter each home of which he slides down the chimney, and he would need this consent every year.

And sorry to say, but because of the complexities presented in landlord/tenant relationships, Mr. Claus may be safer just skipping the homes of renters.  Unless he can secure the consent of both parties to the given rental agreement – and has the chance to review the contract to ensure that he won’t accidentally get the tenants evicted thanks to his unannounced middle-of-the-night visits, the risk is just too great for everyone.

As to the second above argument, this suffers the same deficiencies as the first: why should Santa assume that food left out is there for him to eat?  Thankfully for Kris Kringle, many households leave a note specifically inviting Santa Claus to partake of the baked goods.  But as we are well-aware, Christmas is a time when baked goods abound, and many of these delicacies are left on tables throughout the house so that passersby may enjoy them before they get stale.  Without explicit consent to enter the premises, why should Santa believe that he is entitled to indulge himself in the same manner as the house’s residents and lawfully invited guests?

The third argument is a bit of a non sequitur.  Specifically, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of legal precedent supporting the assertion that burglary is any less of a crime if the burglar does something kind or generous while in the burgled’s house.  Sure, Santa’s leaving presents may serve as an affirmative defense – that he left hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars worth of gifts for the burglary victims – but it doesn’t change the fact that he committed the crime to begin with.

Of course, you may say that all of this is a moot point – even ignoring the imaginary nature of Santa’s existence, it would be impossible to impose any sort of legal sanctions against Mr. Claus not only because of his magical powers of elusiveness, but also because he doesn’t even live in the U.S. – supposedly only visits this country once a year during his worldwide burglary rampage (more commonly referred to as Christmas Eve).

However, nearly all theories of personal jurisdiction would be able to hale Santa Claus into a U.S. court from all the way up at the North Pole.  From a civil law perspective, even if general jurisdiction wouldn’t apply in any given state to Santa Claus’s activities, specific jurisdiction would certainly be able to reach Santa, since it were his actions within the state seeking to establish jurisdiction that led to the cause of action in question.

Conversely, it would be harder to reach Santa in a criminal case.  While a civil court would be able to levy judgments against him and seize any property holdings within the jurisdiction, a criminal court would either have toissue a warrant and have Santa arrested during those fleeting moments that he is within the boundaries of the U.S. (or another country with which the U.S. has an extradition agreement), or take him into custody at his North Pole hideout.  Because Santa is not a resident of any legally recognized nation, there is no way to have him extradited to face charges in the U.S.  But on the flip side of that, because Santa is not under the protection of any recognized sovereign, there is nothing prohibiting the U.S. from taking military action to capture Santa and bring him before the American criminal justice system.

By this point, I hope I haven’t ruined Christmas for too many of you.  But if anyone out there has similar concerns to my son’s, I trust that this explanation of how the law can protect us from those who would infiltrate our chimneys uninvited in the middle of cold, wintry nights helps to lay those fears to rest.