August 2013 Bar Bulletin
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August 2013 Bar Bulletin

Bringing "The Music Man" to Justice

By Christina Schuck


"Professor" Harold Hill, aka "The Music Man," travels around the Midwest pretending to be a music professor, promising to teach even the most tone-deaf children how to play instruments and then form a band. Relying on false credentials, he convinces parents to order instruments and uniforms, then skips town, leaving the town without a band. In the musical, "The Music Man," written by Meredith Willson and based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey and set in 1912, Hill targets a small town in Iowa.

Although the townspeople question Hill's musical and professorial credentials, he cleverly avoids answering by not only breaking into song, but getting those around to join him. After the song ends, no one remembers to follow up on the original questioning. However, this time his scam is thwarted when he falls in love with the piano-playing librarian, Marian Paroo, who happens to be onto his scam, but falls for him, as well, and refuses to turn him in.

Following his heart, Hill stays in town and forms the band. The townspeople are so thrilled to hear their sons playing music, albeit awfully, Hill avoids going to jail or any other comeuppance. But what about the other towns Hill conned, who never got a band and may not be so forgiving? What would their recourse be against a modern-day Hill?

Federally, Hill could be charged with mail fraud1 and/or wire fraud.2 Mail fraud requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) a scheme to defraud; and (2) a mailing of a letter for the purpose of executing the scheme.3 The mailing need only be "incident to an essential part of the scheme or a step in the plot."4 Wire fraud also requires the government to prove a scheme to defraud and additionally, the use of interstate wire communications in furtherance of the scheme.5 Because Hill appears to have furthered his scheme and/or ordered the instruments and uniforms via wire (telegraph) or mail, or both, he could be charged with either one of those crimes.

Importantly, Hill could be charged with mail or wire fraud for his acts in Iowa, despite not following through with the scheme. Because mail and wire fraud are inchoate offenses, meaning incomplete crimes, Hill can be convicted of mail fraud even though his scheme did not reach fruition.6 Should the townspeople have second thoughts about refusing to prosecute Hill, or should the other victims catch up with him, Hill could additionally be charged for his actions in Iowa.

Assuming Hill ran his scam in Washington, he could be charged under several different statutes. First, Hill could simply be charged with theft. In Washington, theft includes obtaining control over the property of another, with intent to deprive him or her of property by color or aid of deception.7 The degree of theft depends upon the value of the property. Specifically, property with a value exceeding $5,000 constitutes first-degree theft,8 a class B felony.9

Depending upon the specific facts of the case, other possible charges against Hill include obtaining a signature by deception or duress and criminal impersonation. If any of the parents executed a written instrument, which includes any paper or document containing written or printed matter,10 Hill could be charged with a class C felony,11 obtaining a signature by deception or duress, if, with the intent to defraud, he caused another to sign or execute a written instrument,12 as opposed to a musical one.

If Hill assumed a false identity, he could be charged with the class C felony criminal impersonation. As the musical reveals, Harold Hill is not our protagonist's real name. A person is guilty of criminal impersonation if he "assumes a false identity and does an act in his or her assumed character with intent to defraud another or for any other unlawful purpose."13 Proving criminal impersonation requires: (1) the assumption of a false identity; and (2) commission of an act in the assumed character with intent to defraud another or for any other unlawful purpose.14

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