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Balloon Boy

 Todd D. Rakoff, Alex Whiting, and Kyle Virgien  
Product number:
14 pages
Product Type:
Workshop-Based Case Study
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On October 15, 2009, Richard and Mayumi Heene called 911 in a panic. Their son Falcon had gone missing, as had a large metallic balloon housed in their backyard. Local and federal authorities conducted a highly publicized rescue effort for the UFO, but when the balloon was recovered, it was found empty.  The Heenes eventually admitted that the incident was a hoax and a publicity stunt.

This case examines the discretion of local prosecutors at the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office, who were faced with tough decisions about charges to bring against the parents and plea bargaining strategies.  Students are asked to weigh the interests of various parties—the District Attorney, the defendants and their children, the law enforcement agencies who expended resources on a bogus rescue—and also to arrive at a result that the students themselves consider legally defensible and just.

The case materials are drawn from actual events but supplemented by fictional memos that supply students with assignments and additional information. Part 1 of the case provides an overview of the facts and the questions faced by local law enforcement, as well as the applicable statutory law. Part 2 probes further into the various interests to be weighed, including the collateral implications of prosecutorial strategies (e.g., the mother’s immigration status, which may be affected depending on the charges brought; custody of the couple’s children). Part 3 introduces students to the ethical dimensions of the prosecutorial role through a law review article. Finally, instructors can provide students with Part 4, a brief description of the actual outcome of the case for further discussion.

Learning Objectives

  • Begin to develop a systematic approach to problem solving when faced with an unresolved issue or new situation.
  • Understand the role of the prosecutor, and hone one’s sense of discretion and judgment by developing a sound legal strategy from a variety of legally permissible options.
  • Identify and respond to practical and ethical issues that lawyers face when they serve as mediators of diverse interests.
  • Appreciate that externalities may result from a lawyer’s decision to pursue a particular legal strategy or course of action.
  • Engage in context-driven interpretation of statutory law and case law.

Subjects Covered

Criminal law, District Attorney’s Office, hoaxes, parental responsibility


Geographic: Colorado

Event Year Begin: 2009


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Additional Information

The Boy Who Cried Balloon

The Problem Solving Workshop: A Video Introduction

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