Massachusetts: Aqua Teen Hunger Force lights an 'infernal machine'

When Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley proudly announced on Thursday that two men had been arraigned as a result of the guerrilla marketing campaign in Boston, what she didn't say was how weak the legal charges seem to be.

The charges against Sean Stevens, 28, and Peter Berdovsky, 27, according to the attorney general's press release stem from a state law making it a crime to place a hoax device in public.

But a closer read of the Massachusetts statute shows that it actually uses the term "infernal machine." (We are not making this up.)

For the hapless duo to be convicted under this statute, prosecutors must prove each of four things: (1) Stevens and Berdovsky were the ones who placed the Aqua Teen Hunger Force devices (2) "with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort." (3) A person must "reasonably" believe that it's (4) a "device for endangering life or doing unusual damage to property, or both, by fire or explosion."

It seems obvious that whoever distributed the magnetic light devices was merely trying to advertise a show on the Cartoon Network -- and not "cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort." It's also hardly clear that the reaction of the Boston police was "reasonably" done.

For its part, Turner Broadcasting has accepted full responsibility for the scare and has agreed to pay the costs of Boston's finest, who closed down multiple streets, bridges, and the Charles River itself after a transit worker spotted one of the magnetic lights.

The Aqua Teen Hunger Force magnetic lights have been in place for two to three weeks in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, according to Turner Broadcasting. No other city decided they were a security threat.

Another clue into what might happen if this prosecution ever goes to court lies in the history of other people convicted under the infernal machine law. (We've made some excerpts available from infernal machine cases going back to 1971.)

A 1971 infernal machine conviction involved an explosive "pyrotechnical bomb shell" that could "cause extensive property damage and personal injury." A 1979 conviction dealt with a defendant filling plastic garbage bags with gasoline -- a "volatile and dangerous" combination that apparently would be "used for an illicit purpose."

In 1987, a defendant was indicted for having a "cigarette package, filled with explosive gunpowder, and disguised to appear harmless." Sixteen years later, another was found guilty of possessing an infernal machine for having a grenade simulator modified to be extra-destructive and filled with flash powder.

The most recent case may be the most instructive. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that possessing C-4 plastic explosive and blasting caps did not violate the infernal machine law because the two explosives weren't assembled into a single device.

Each of those cases involved a device that was actually (or could be) destructive. If plastic explosives don't violate the infernal machine law, would a jury rule that Aqua Teen Hunger Force magnetic lights do?

One last point. Legend has it that, during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked off the northeast coast of England by a town called Hartlepool. The lone survivor was a monkey.

"The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and held a beach-based trial," according to the town's Web site. "Unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like they came to the conclusion that this monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death." The poor creature was hung and is immortalized in a tongue-in-cheek song today.

Whether or not it's true, the Great Hartlepool Hanging has been retold as a hilarious example of overreaction to a security threat. Time will tell whether Boston goes down in history the same way.

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