Hollywood Law refers to a fictitious legal situation which in no way resembles the actual legal system in the place portrayed, but rather is played up for dramatic purposes.
Since the ins and outs of the legal system in Real Life
are far less dramatic and tense than anything the average viewer would want to sit still for, it's considered one of the many Acceptable Breaks from Reality
for Hollywood to prioritize drama over factual accuracy about the legal system, especially when it comes to shows not directly related to law enforcement. Even in works that focus on the legal system, Hollywood will over-dramatize it to the point of trotting out things that would be disallowed in real life, or misuse a valid aspect of the law without regard to any actual procedural constraints that would prevent it being misused so blatantly.
At the extreme, many a Broken Aesop
occurs when Hollywood Law is used to debate the effectiveness of the legal system itself. For instance, depicting violent criminals getting Off on a Technicality
via some oversimplified nuance (such as forgetting to dot the 'i' on the arrest warrant) to suggest that we should just use a simpler and common sense-based legal system that looks more lightly on police or prosecutorial misconduct or trust in the Vigilante Man
to clean up after the government's failings.
Unfortunately, the media exerts a pervasive influence in people's perceptions by being the average viewer's most easily-accessible window into the justice system. Some of the most common misrepresentations widely used in dramatic fiction can fuel misconceptions in the audience
if they believe these depictions accurately reflect the justice system in real life, and can influence how they vote in elections or result in The CSI Effect
when they sit on a jury, with disastrous results
Note that it only falls into Hollywood Law if someone (like the opposing counsel) is aware of the improper conduct/law and fails to object or call anyone on it without good reason. If both sides agree to an unusual arrangement (surprise witnesses, last-minute evidence, even calling the prosecution as a witness), it's not unrealistic for a judge to allow it. Or if a judge and a lawyer have an ex parte
meeting without opposing counsel present but they agree to keep it a secret (it would be illegal, but such things happen). Also, a setting that is Like Reality Unless Noted
might have fictional aspects of the law under "noted", that explain things you might see as Hollywood Law, such as a Super Registration Act
in a superhero setting that lets superheroes testify without revealing their Secret Identity
- Victim of the System: An innocent character is arrested at the drop of a hat for some legitimate but otherwise minor offense that does not carry such a harsh punishment in the real world or wrongfully convicted/sued/imprisoned/executed. While innocent people do get wrongfully convicted in real life (indeed, this is why The Innocence Project exists), fiction will exaggerate how often or how easy it is for the legal system to railroad an innocent person.
- The Strip-Search: A person is subjected to humiliating police-procedures (strip searches, cavity searches, etc). Typically such procedures are reserved for persons with a reasonable suspicion to suspect they are smuggling either drugs or weapons, and are limited to suchnote ; however Hollywood extends the right of police or Airport security to do a deep cavity search on anyone, mostly due to Rule of Funny in commercials (e.g. the Sierra Mist "Airport scene" sketch) or in movies (e.g. Wayne's World).
- The Cornered Stool Pigeon: This trope involves a lawyer who "corners" a lying witness, catching him or her in a lie and calling them on it; instead of invoking their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination or just staying silent, the witness breaks down and confesses everything on the spot-while the opposing counsel looks on and says nothing. This often involves a lawyer badgering and bullying the witness into a confession. In real life, a witness will typically stick to their story even when caught in a lie, or the opposing counsel will intervene at the very least to confer with them and prepare for their questioning. However, if a witness on the stand declines to answer a question, the attorney can have them compelled or get any prior testimony thrown out.
- The Ambush: Similar to The Cornered Stool Pigeon, this involves the "hero" lawyer "ambushing" a testifying suspect by suddenly introducing hitherto unknown evidence, which absolutely proves the suspect to be guilty. In a real-life criminal court, both sides have to make available all evidence they intend to use before the trial; the prosecution in particular has to produce for the defense any exculpatory evidence in the government's possession that might exonerate the defendant (while the defense is actively barred from sharing any evidence that might incriminate their client). This goes for "surprise witnesses" as well; with rare exceptions, witnesses must be approved by the court in order to be admitted to testify. In a civil suit, however, the plaintiff and defendant both must turn over any evidence properly requested, without exception.
- Off on a Technicality: A ruthless criminal—typically a killer—is released on a "technicality" (i.e. a meaningless legal slip-up in bureaucratic procedure) despite being proven absolutely guilty of the heinous crime in question. This trope serves to spark cheap outrage at an obvious miscarriage of justice—as well as outrage and disrespect at the legal system in general. The most common use is the "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree" loophole, whereby an error in one aspect of the government's case suddenly precludes the whole batch of validly-obtained evidence that came as a result of it, regardless of the nature of the initial error. In reality, such "loopholes" are not the result of mere obscure legal games, but rather are due to serious policy concerns such as sloppy police work or vague legal definitions, or serious rights violations by police or prosecutors (i.e. Reversible Errors); meanwhile actual "technicalities" are typically overruled as Harmless Errors. Hollywood will not only exaggerate just how common these technicalities occur but will also ignore valid exceptions like the "good faith exception" (police believed they were operating legally when they illegally obtained some evidence) independent source (the police discovered the same evidence through another legal means) or inevitable discovery (they would have found the evidence legally anyway, so it's let in) to push through the defendant's release.
- "My Hands are Tied": Indifferent bureaucrats such as police, judges or other persons in government, refuse to help a legal victim, claiming that "there's nothing they can do" against an obvious injustice, or grant a warrant against a suspect due to lack of tangible evidence or There Should Be a Law but isn't, resulting in the suspect's guilt being Not Proven. While these types of situations can exist (as with domestic violence), it's typically exaggerated solely to spark outrage in the audience.
- Colombian Drug Lords: It is not permitted for the defense to offer unusual defenses without first showing proof. Attempting to call seemingly unrelated witnesses or enter such things as evidence will not be allowed. Your claim of a big conspiracy or that someone else committed the crime will not be permitted unless you have some solid proof before they allow you to call someone as a witness. The Insanity Defense applies as well; you need a credible psychiatric expert to confirm your client isn't just making up his story about hearing voices to sway the jury. This rule doesn't apply to a lawyer's "closing statements" though, hence the accusation from Johnny Cochran at the end of the OJ Simpson trial that unidentified "Columbian drug lords" were responsible, the Trope Namer here.
- One very common mistake is when someone in the courtroom audience is called to the witness stand. Witnesses are not permitted to attend the trial or talk to other witnesses about the case before they testify. If a witness is finished with their testimony and it is agreed they will not be called back, then they can attend the rest of the trial. Calling the prosecutor to the stand is possible if The Judge allows it but almost never done, although it happened once in the famous Scopes "monkey" trial when defense attorney Clarence Darrow requested that prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan take the witness stand note .
- Jury Nullification: when the defense argues "Yes, my client did exactly what the State says he did. But the law sucks/is unfair, so you should find him not guilty anyway." Jury nullification is technically perjury, the jurors having been sworn against it. (It also undermines separation of powers: judges and juries are supposed to reach a verdict according to existing laws, not to judge the laws themselves - that's the legislative's job.) Even though it's been upheld time and time again (in the US) that the jurors aren't liable and their decisions hold, it certainly can't be suggested by the defense. On the other hand, the prosecution can't argue against it because some courts (and state constitutions) have held it to be a right of the jury that the defense is simply forbidden from instructing them about. For this reason, Hollywood defense lawyers sandwich the "nullification" argument within another legally viable one, such as in an episode of L.A. Law, in which a rapist, a diplomat from a sexist country, was released on Diplomatic Immunity, and his victim killed him in revenge; in her trial, her attorney told the jury to use the "temporary insanity" defense (notwithstanding that there is no legal concept of "temporary insanity", though there is a somewhat related concept of "automatism", though it would not apply here), saying that this is the only way that they could acquit her, but really, it was the only way for the defense to legally ask the jury to acquit her.
- Also, this is an ongoing controversial issue; people have been harassed for various "unrelated" reasons (they can't be arrested for the act itself; how do you keep a jury from being informed about jury nullification if informing juries is the crime for which they are being tried) for passing out FIJA pamphlets outside courthouses.
- A similar such law applies in British jurisdictions, commonly known as "the Rule in Stonehouse." Effectively the rule is that a judge cannot direct a jury to find a person guilty of a crime (although he can direct the jury to find them not guilty.) Lawyers can't resort to that in appeals to juries, though, because it's a breach of their ethics: they cannot ask a jury to ignore the law they are sworn to uphold. But accused representing ''themselves'' in politically charged cases have been known to resort to this defence and be successful with it.
- The Judge Takes Control: A judge, if sufficiently convinced that no reasonable jury could reach the verdict they have reached, may issue what is called a Directed Verdict or Judgement of Acquittal before the jury decides, or issue this after they already have, thus vacating the jury's decision. Since in the U.S., the Fifth Amendment prohibits an acquittal from being overturned, note the judge can only do this in the defendant's favor. Thus, if the jury finds him guilty, the judge can still acquit him. But if a jury acquits them, even the worst Judge Hangemall cannot overrule them to find the defendant guilty. A judge's decision to set aside a verdict of guilty is appealable, and the original decision can be reinstated. However if they acquit a defendant on their own before the jury has, this cannot be appealed, just like acquittal by jury verdict. Likewise, a judge does not have the power to issue a guilty verdict if the prosecution drops the charges.
- None of this fancy business applies in civil trials, however; the judge can render final (if appealable) judgment at five discrete points (in the US at any rate)
- After the defendant files his/her answer (judgment on the pleadings, most often a defendant's motion to dismiss; amounts to "Look, Your Honor, even if what they say is true, we still win."e.g. ),
- During or after discovery (summary judgment; amounts to "Your Honor, anything they say at trial won't change a jury's verdict in our favor" e.g. ),
- After the plaintiff finishes making his/her case (judgment as a matter of law—JMOL for short—or directed verdict, depending on jurisdiction; only the defense can move at this point; amounts to "Your Honor, now you've heard everything they have to say, no jury could find against us."e.g. )
- After the defense finishes making its case (JMOL/directed verdict, again based on jurisdiction; both sides may move),
- And after the jury reaches a verdict (JMOL or judgment non obstante veredicto-"notwithstanding the verdict"; amounts to, "Your Honor, the jury was clearly unreasonable."e.g. ).
- In all these cases, the judge may find for the defense or for the plaintiff if either side has met the applicable burden (which changes; for instance, at summary judgment the moving party must show that there is no "genuine issue of material fact", while at pleadings the moving party must show that the opposing party's plea is "implausible on its face.")
- Of course, there are many countries (Germany and the Netherlands, for example) where there is no such thing as a "jury" and the judge (or judges-many countries try cases using panels of three) is in control all the time. In many of those countries the prosecution can also appeal an acquittal, or a lenient sentence.
- Hollywood/TV interrogations: Real interrogations are rarely as exciting, or quick, as portrayed in media. Police are very careful during interrogations not to lead, badger, or abuse a suspect, and risk a good defense attorney having the testimony be suppressed as evidence. Particularly in major felony crimes (the focus of most TV crime shows), interrogations can last hours or even days, and are mostly boring question-and-answer sessions designed to wear a suspect down over time. Stereotypical techniques like yelling, insulting, "good cop/bad cop", and other aggressive interrogation techniques are used whenever police think they are useful, and they can get away with them. Those situations just aren't as common as Hollywood would have you believe, largely because serious civil-rights actions in the mid-to-late 20th century exposed their rampant use of "third degree" police tactics including torture, psychological manipulation, and various other atrocious interrogation methods-which often were excused by both police and the US Supreme Court. Furthermore, while police are allowed to lie to suspects about certain things like the evidence against them, they are definitely not allowed to lie about the legal consequences of a confession (for instance, getting a guy to confess to attempted murder by giving him the 'Shoot the Dead Guy' spiel down below).
- Miranda Rights: They must be read to every accused criminal upon arrest, and if Miranda rights are not read, the charges must be dismissed and the prisoner released... or so the misconception would have it. Miranda Rights have to be read to a suspect before police ask questions about the crime, if he is in their custody at the time. If the police do not ask any questions, then Miranda Rights do not apply. Anything a suspect says at the time of arrest is voluntary, so police rarely give Miranda warnings then for that very reason. (Moreover, if you're being arrested, the police probably don't have too many pressing questions to ask you.) Furthermore, the remedy for failure to advise the accused of Miranda rights, when the officer is required to do so, is to exclude the arrestee's statement and any evidence discovered as a result of that statement from being used against him at trial. It does not invalidate the arrest, so long as the arrest is based upon other evidence.
- This one is a very common misunderstanding in real life (and the bane of anyone familiar with the US legal system who gets a 3AM call from a friend wondering if their arrest for intoxication was valid because the cop didn't read them their rights, man). The critical aspects of Miranda Rights are in the right to counsel and the right to refuse questioning — but these rights only apply once a suspect is no longer free to exit interrogation. Law & Order often gets this one right (while falling into Hollywood Law in other places): in one case, a detective who spent a considerable amount of time with a witness had her retrace her steps on the day someone abducted her child; when the woman asked if this was necessary and to stop, he forced her to keep on, leading to incriminating statements and new evidence. Because the witness-turned-suspect was not able to leave police custody and end questioning, this became an issue for the prosecution, as it constituted a Miranda violation. This is the biggest stumbling block in most portrayals of Miranda Rights: they have nothing to do with arrest, but questioning. If you are in a situation in which you cannot end questioning (e.g., you're in a police station and told not to leave, as the police are contemplating arresting you), you have the right to counsel, the right to silence (i.e., to not make self-incriminating statements), and, most crucially, the right to know you have the right to counsel. In order to make sure everyone is clear on this (and there are no legal issues later), after a suspect is informed of their rights, they then sign a waiver confirming that they understand each right and, knowing their rights, that they still wish to continue talking to the police. (There are certain requirements officers must fulfill in order for the waiver to be valid, but this is rarely a part of Hollywood Law.)
- The One Phone Call: A very common misconception is that you're guaranteed by law one single phone call after you're arrested, to anyone at all, and if you blow it, too bad. The reality is that you are guaranteed access to legal counsel; beyond that, any outside communication is a privilege that can be given or withheld at the whim of the detaining institution. Nevertheless, most police officers allow you to have as many phone calls as you want, because unless you're talking to your lawyer or doctor, anything you say can be recorded as evidence.
- On that topic, Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: The perception that a person must be either guilty or a sleazeball for requesting access to legal counsel rather than waive this right, because "it will make me look guilty". If you are arrested by the police on suspicion of having committed a crime, it is always advised to have your lawyer present, guilty or not.
- Freedom of Speech: This is often misinterpreted to mean you can say whatever you want wherever. However, it only means that the government cannot prosecute you for things you say (with a few exceptions like inciting riot) or force you to say anything. In particular, you can't be arrested for criticizing the government or stating your opinion. However, private entities and employers (including the government if you work for them) have an equally-strong right to protect their interests. Statements that induce violence, bigotry, obscenity, slander, or are simply in poor taste can still result in firing, expulsion, loss of advertisers, or any other appropriate consequence.
- Put this way: The prohibition is on the government, and what it prohibits is limiting the freedom of speech. Private entities can still limit your speech rights via contract (e.g. through an employee or student code of conduct), and both private and public entities can pursue you for cases where your freedom of speech interferes with someone else's rights: private entities can pursue you for defamation (as reputation is a liberty interest with a strong impact on property interests—i.e. if someone says the butcher's shop is unsanitary when it isn't, people will stop buying meat from him, even though the meat is fine) and the government can pursue you (as noted) for incitement (since if you actually did start the riot, your speech interfered with other people's rights to life—if anyone was killed or injured—and property—for property destruction).
- Shoot the Dead Guy: Appears infrequently in detective shows. The perp is busted for killing someone, and often confesses, but it transpires that somebody had beaten them to it, and they had actually only "killed" a corpse. Shooting a dead person is attempted murder at the least, if the aim was to kill the person, but they will be let off on the grounds that "shooting a dead man isn't a crime" (very often, someone actually says something like this or claims it's merely desecration of a corpse).
- Averted on Law & Order, when Ben Stone relates the legal theory of the "Shoot the Dead Guy" story to prove his point about a con artist who framed a man for her miscarriage as part of a scam; not knowing how far along a fetus had to be before it reached "personhood" to be considered a legal "victim" of a crime was the basis for charging her with attempted murder of the unborn baby.
- Also averted in an episode of Murder, She Wrote. A woman confessed to stabbing a man to death while he was sleeping on a bus. Jessica explained that the woman is only guilty of attempted murder (rather than being guilty of nothing at all) because the man was (unknown to the confessor) already dead at the time.
- As a matter of English law, stabbing a 'sleeping' man, who it turned out was already dead, would not have been attempted murder prior to 27 August 1981. At common law if an offense was impossible to commit there could be no liability for attempting the offense. In the case of the 'sleeping' man, it would have been impossible to commit murder, since the definition of murder requires killing, and you can't kill someone who is already dead. The law was changed by the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, s.1(2) of which provides: "A person may be guilty of attempting to commit an offense to which this section applies even though the facts are such that the commission of the offense is impossible".
- Only a Consultant: This one is a recent development in Western pop culture, due to the profusion of TV shows featuring a main character who works for the police, but as a "consultant" rather than a sworn officer (e.g., Monk, The Mentalist, Castle, etc.). Often, the consultant will do things that the regular police wouldn't be allowed to, like searching somebody's house without a warrant or using some sort of coercion to get a confession, then brush off questions of legality by claiming that he or she is a private citizen, and therefore not bound by the same rules as the police. In real life, an individual employed by a police department is considered an agent of law enforcement for exactly that reason. If they were not, the cops could just hire private detectives to solve all their cases and never have to worry about warrants or Miranda rights again.
- While any police officer who is authorized to carry a gun is of course legally permitted to use it in the performance of his duties, actually shooting somebody in the line of duty will often result in an inquiry into whether or not the use of their gun was justified (especially if the person who gets shot dies). A great many movie cops would find themselves on administrative leave pending the results of the inquiry (with their gun taken for ballistics tests by Internal Affairs) within twenty minutes of the opening credits, seriously restricting their ability to investigate whatever case the film is about. This is because most places are willing to admit that there is such a thing as a Dirty Cop (Even if they're reluctant to admit that there are any in their jurisdiction at any given time), and that it is quite possible that a Dirty Cop would be willing to commit murder and claim the victim was resisting arrest or trying to escape.
- Many shows give the impression that the statue of limitations expires the moment the credits run (Unless it's a multi-part episode or the crime is a part of a major story arc): If there's not enough evidence to arrest a man for a crime committed this week, then he can't be arrested, even if the cops have more than enough evidence to bust him for the crimes he committed in last week's episode, when he simply managed to avoid capture. In real life, the length of the statue of limitations for a crime ranges from months to years, and for some crimes (Such as murder), it never expires.
- Attorney-client privilege is another one that crime shows often get wrong. In the media, it's treated as though anything a criminal says to a lawyer is absolutely confidential and can't be used as evidence, even if the lawyer wanted to. In reality, attorney-client privilege has quite a few exceptions. The privilege only applies if you've been directly accused of a crime. Simply flinging twenty bucks at an attorney walking down the street and saying to them "I killed this dude" does not count, because the attorney is not representing you in anything. And while your lawyer can't hand you in for the crime that you've committed (a good attorney will never ask you if you're guilty or not anyway, because it doesn't matter and frankly they'd rather not know in some situations), they are required by law to report all future crimes you may commit. If your lawyer got you off on an assault charge, and you turn to them and say, "Thanks, I'll make sure to punch him harder next time" they will turn you in.
- "That's alright, officer, I won't press charges." In various works, most egregiously in National Lampoons Vacation and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, variations of that sentence, spoken by the victim of a crime, automatically absolve the perpetrator from any consequences. In Real Life, however, once the police have been called, such a decision may very well be out of the victim's hands, since it is now the prosecutor who makes that call. There are a number of parents who find this out the hard way. Their children take their cars or credit cards, and the parents report a theft to teach the kids a lesson. When the kids are arrested, the parents state that they won't press charges, only to find out that their children may now face felony convictions (and significant prison time), regardless. This is, of course, a matter of prosecutorial discretion, and a prosecutor may decline to pursue a case where a victim doesn't want to press charges. On the other hand, if the prosecutor feels that the case is worth it, he may be able to go forward without requiring the victim to testify, or may pressure the victim, for example, with a subpoena and the threat of contempt charges, into testifying. Thus, while a victim's disinclination to press charges may resolve the matter, it is not the automatic "Get Out of Jail Free" Card various media would suggest.
- In a similar vein, on various cop show episodes involving underage sexual relationships there's sometimes the mistaken belief that statutory rape charges can't be pressed, or at the very least won't be successful in court, if the underage participant in question was willing and the sex was consensual. In most nations, this is never the case. In fact, if the minor says that they were in a relationship, this pretty much seals the deal as far as the court's concerned, as the only defence against a statutory rape charge is denying that the sex ever took place to begin with. Minors are not considered mentally and emotionally mature enough to make their own decisions when it comes to sex, for very good reasons, so their opinions on the case have no real bearing on anything.
For Hollywood Law tropes on this wiki, see: Artistic License - Law
. See also Read The Fine Print
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- In Manhunter, Kate Spencer's prosecution of Shadow Thief for the murder of Ron Raymond, aka Firestorm, is ludicrous. It's hard to know where to begin, but consider the fact that Spencer calls a bunch of superheroes to testify without giving their real names. You can't testify at a trial under an alias. Secondly, most of them weren't even legitimate witnesses in the first place: they didn't actually see the crime committed, and she just asked them questions about what a hero Firestorm was, and what a great guy he was. None of that would be relevant at trial, although some of it might be allowed at a sentencing hearing, if Shadow Thief were convicted. The bizarre part is that there were other superheroes who were present at the crime and saw it happen, at least one of whom, Vixen, has a public identity and could have been called as a witness; needless to say, she wasn't.
- There is evidence that trial law in the DCU has been modified to allow superheroes to testify without revealing their identities. The other points absolutely stand, though.
- That would be the Keene Act and the Ingersoll Amendment, the latter so named for lawyer and comic columnist Bob Ingersoll, who analyzed and criticized poor representation of the law in comic books.
- In one issue of Daredevil, a judge appointed under Norman Osborn overruled a Not Guilty verdict in a criminal trial and sent the innocent defendants to prison, ignoring 1000 years of legal precedent and the US constitution. To be fair, though, the Marvel Universe during Dark Reign seemed to be a fascist dictatorship under Osborn, so the law probably changed to allow this verdict (otherwise completely illegal and unconstitutional in our world) .
- Osborn getting that job he had in the first place, long after being exposed and jailed for being a superhuman homicidal maniac, whose standard M.O. was flying around a city throwing bombs and who once planned to murder all life on Earth, is however a pretty straight example.
- Yes, in that you become ineligible for most and/or all political offices, especially at higher levels, if you've committed a felony, and Osborn was never pardoned.
- Oddly enough, you do not become ineligible for the US Presidency. Numerous felons (mostly political activists like Eugene Debs or Leonard Peltier) have run for President while in prison for a felony conviction (Peltier is even serving two life sentences for murder, but if elected he could pardon himself, so no worries there).
- Green Arrow
- #32 features the Jury Nullification with a slight difference: They find him not guilty, but the Judge still rules that he is exiled from the city for life, giving him 24 hours to leave and stating that he will be imprisoned if he returns.
- In addition to that rather dubious ruling, the judge openly states that he could have Ollie thrown in jail anyway, despite the jury acquittal. This is utterly impossible under US law and going on the record with it would probably earn a judge official reprimands at the very least.
- Then there's the matter of whether or not Star City even has jurisdiction to prosecute Green Arrow for the killing (it took place in a pocket dimension) or why the Star City DA's office never filed for a change of venue (given that Ollie's jury would be selected from the population he'd spent years protecting).
- In X-Men, Josh Foley, aka Elixir, is told by Danielle Moonstar that his parents have signed total legal guardianship over to her, without Josh ever having been notified or called before a judge or any indication that either party set foot in a court of law. He's 16 at the time, so how did such important legal proceedings take place without him even knowing about them?
- Sonic the Hedgehog #40 had Sonic point out that the party responsible for his transformation into Mecha Sonic, Nack the Weasel, had been missing the entire time and that the overzealous Antonie had utterly forgotten about him. However, Princess Sally, acting as the judge, practically tells Sonic to cram it. He's later forced to drag Nack back to prove his innocence.
- Marvel writers have repeatedly had a character charged with "treason" over acts which have nothing to do with the deliberately narrow definition of treason expressly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution—levying war against the United States or, in adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort. It does not mean "acting against a government agency" or "insubordination".) It's also really hard to convict someone of it-treason is the only crime specifically defined in the US Constitution (to prevent abusive prosecutions under looser definitions as went on under the British Crown) requiring two or more witnesses testifying to the same act, or a confession in open court, which is the only crime in US federal or state law with this high standard to obtain a conviction.
- A Punisher story made hash of the Insanity Defense by having a judge not remand the Punisher for psychiatric examination, but simply decreeing that he was "insane" on the basis of counsel's rhetoric (and over his vehement objection.)
Films — Animated
- In Pixar's Up, Carl is involuntarily committed to a retirement home after he whacks a guy over the head with a cane. The guy, at the time, had been struggling with Carl over his mailbox, despite Carl's repeated demands for him to let it go. While he may have had to pay some damages as a result, a single incident borne of an obvious misunderstanding wouldn't lead to commitment, though the Corrupt Corporate Executive who wanted Carl's house might have pulled strings. After all, tampering with the mail is a federal crime. He could be prosecuted for assault (unlikely) or sued by the man, but involuntary commitment to a retirement home is only something next-of-kin with power of attorney can do.
Films — Live-Action
- Con Air.
- First, there's very little chance Cameron Poe would have been charged, to say anything of being convicted, for defending his wife from drunken barflies.
- Second, no judge in the U.S. has ever used a person's military training against them in cases like this.
- Third, he would not have been tried in federal court, or sent to a federal prison, as this was not in federal jurisdiction.
- Fourth, a judge cannot accept a plea bargain as a legal confession while reneging on the bargain's terms.
- In Daredevil, the only scene of hero Matt Murdock actually acting as a lawyer that made it to the theatrical cut was of him seemingly seeking a conviction for a rape suspect. The catch? Murdock is a defense attorney, a fact emphasized by the voluminous material that was cut from the movie. So while, in Real Life, you MAY see a victim's advocate making submissions at sentencing in many jurisdictions, there's no way in hell that Murdock would have been making arguments in court and getting annoyed that the defendant was acquitted. Murdock could have been suing the guy in tort for the rape, but even in that case he still wouldn't be on the defense side of things. The comics' Daredevil is always a defense attorney-perhaps they didn't think that would be sympathetic enough?
- Kevin Lomax in The Devils Advocate is a Super Lawyer who has "never lost a case". We're told that in his early career he worked in the local district attorney's office and had a string of 64 straight convictions, and he "didn't plead out often". This would actually indicate that he's a terrible prosecutor. First, prosecutors get to choose their cases, so he could have a string of "sure thing" prosecutions. Second, prosecuting these cases to trial would clog up the court's docket when he should be making plea bargains with the defendants. Odds are, the bulk of his victories would have been mundane cases where the defendant was guilty as hell and took a deal. It's still possible the cases weren't so clear, though, which would give him a better reputation. At least they averted this trope when he says that he might be disbarred for refusing to continue defending his client. In the US, a client can fire his lawyer, and a lawyer can quit if it wouldn't substantially harm his client. An attorney can't just quit in the middle of trial for that reason. In reality, the judge would either deny Lomax's request to withdraw or declare a mistrial on the grounds that the Defendant had been denied a fair trial due to attorney misconduct.
- There are many real life prosecutors who claim to have "never lost a case". They do this by either dropping or pleading out the hard cases and only taking sure things to trial.
- Charles Bronson in Death Wish condemns the entire criminal justice system, as a comedy for thugs and a tragedy for good citizens. The evidence against criminals in these movies is always insufficient to convict, or even arrest, usually in contrived ways so he can be seen as justified in his vigilante rampages.
- Good Will Hunting gets a bunch of things wrong. In the opening, Will is arrested for assaulting a police officer. This is a very serious offense that he tries to get dismissed by saying it was "self-defense against tyranny". The judge acknowledges that Will defended himself on an earlier charge of Grand Theft Auto by quoting a two-hundred year old case on the grounds of "free property rights of horse and buggy". Most likely it would have either been reversed or ignored in favor of more recent law. Anyway, the judge denies the motion to dismiss and puts him in jail. The Harvard professor says that he "talked to the judge" and got his permission to have Will work for him as a form of probation. The professor is not a lawyer and therefore has no right to "talk to" the judge on Will's behalf. The Professor might have put up his bail to get Will released, but Will would still have to stand trial for the assault charge.
- That said, sometimes long-forgotten laws will be brought up and used again, though this is far more common for property rights vs. railroad tracks-type-issues than criminal cases.
- As for the Professor "talking with the judge," he might have used a personal friendship, Harvard's clout or just his own attorney and shortened it when he conveyed this to Will. It's not impossible that it happened, they're just vague about how. It also doesn't mean the judge dismissed the charge, just that he would be in the Professor's custody. Will must have got a plea deal off-screen.
- Hot Fuzz is an inversion - he plays completely by the book and is so good that he gets assigned to a sleepy little town because he makes all the other cops in London look incompetent. And even in this sleepy town he is so good he reveals a conspiracy. The film is an attempt by Simon Pegg to have Britain have its own "buddy cop" films. Unfortunately, part of the reason these films are so popular in the States is the use of this trope.
- The Lethal Weapon movies which have far too many to count. The movies just operate under Rule of Cool and ignore everything else.
- The Beverly Hills Cop movie series are the same as Lethal Weapon.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street: Part of Freddy's backstory is that he was arrested and convicted of being a serial killer who targeted children, then was released because his arrest warrant was signed in the wrong place. In the TV spinoff's pilot, it was because he hadn't been read his rights. Two invocations of this trope for the price of one incident!
- In Pacific Heights, Michael Keaton engages in various outrageous illegal acts against his landlords, who are thwarted from any recourse by a system of indifferent police, judges and attorneys, as well as Keaton using the Loophole. This movie was a nonstop sequence of Hollywood Law and later Vigilante Execution as the victims were driven to take the law into their own hands—which the police even stated would be the only real recourse.
- Super Lawyer: Gene Hackman. He's evil, has a command center filled with computer screens, and apparently capable of quickly breaking into encrypted files.
- Dream Team: Dustin Hoffman and the two conspiring protagonists. In real life, it would mean serious prison time if caught (just as with Hackman's own attempted jury tampering.)
- Deus ex Machina Lawyer: The Hero lawyer only wins because one of the Super Lawyer's employees betrays him.
- Played for laughs in both Reckless Kelly and Rocky and Bullwinkle in which celebrities are legally exempt from any laws.
- In Revenge of the Nerds, the antagonists commit various crimes against the "Nerds," but are told by police that it's "out of their jurisdiction;" since it's "college pranks—" even regarding outright crimes, including assault, battery, terrorism, and Malicious Destruction of Property; in response, the Nerds commit other crimes against the jocks in "revenge—" including one "Nerd," Lewis, raping a cheerleader by posing as her boyfriend (a serious felony). In reality, state laws do not recognize college campuses as sovereign boundaries or "no-man's lands;" however here, even felonies were entirely subject to judgment by Hollywood Law.
- The Robot Chicken sketch comes down hard on the nerds for what they did . That was another case of Hollywood Law, since it ignored the defense of selective prosecution (i.e. the law cannot be applied selectively, to punish those whom it will not protect from the same offenses). The campus police had already told the Nerds outright, that fraternity pranks were "out of their jurisdiction" (which is correct, if it's considered a "social contract" among college students that they accept by enrolling there); and everything the Nerds did in their "revenge," pretty much qualified as fraternity pranks (since they were acting as members of a fraternity, being honorary tri-Lambs). Likewise, the alleged victim of rape, Betty Childs, didn't want to file charges, falling hopelessly in love with Lewis (he was just that good at the science of sex, as he evidenced earlier in the film). Meanwhile, the jocks got away with destroying the Nerds' house, and the police still didn't care— a case of Truth in Television, since football players have been known to get away with murder. (Now, if Booger had actually "blown the fuckers up" and still gotten away with it, then THAT would have been an interesting case indeed.)
- Aside from the pranks, the football players burn down their own frat house and are encouraged to take over the freshman dorm, evicting the new students and throwing their belongings out the windows.
- Regarding the rape, the traditional law — still the law in much of the US today — is that tricking someone into sex by impersonation is not a crime unless the perpetrator is impersonating the victim's spouse. It would therefore depend on which state this took place in whether this was even a charge which could be brought at all, assuming the alleged victim wanted that.
- Incidentally, many modern campuses now have their own, fully accredited police forces. Both the Nerd and the Frat Boys might well be arrested, especially once one of the Nerds gets the bright idea to post what happened to them on Buzzfeed or Youtube...
- For a film based on real events, The Untouchables gets just about everything about Al Capone's trial dead wrong:
- The judge orders the jury switched with a jury next door. No judge has the power to call in a jury that the parties didn't select. Also, the new jury was brought in after the key prosecution witness had testified. Any Defense lawyer would love to have a jury that never saw the prosecution's evidence! The actual judge did switch the pool of available jurors when he saw evidence Capone bribed them, but that happened prior to the trial's start. In the movie's scenario he would have just declared a mistrial and they'd select new, uncorrupted jurors for a new trial.
- Income Tax Evasion is a Federal, not a State crime. The Real Life case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's office, not the Cook County District Attorney, and tried in United States Courthouse, not the Cook County Courthouse, by a federal judge.
- Capone’s lawyer also enters a plea change without his client’s request or consent. Apparently, the fact that Capone clearly does not want to plead guilty (via assaulting his lawyer) counts for nothing. In Real Life, a court cannot accept a plea that is not made with the defendant's consent; doing so would be thrown out on appeal. Likewise, any lawyer who tried to enter a plea without his client's consent would most likely be disbarred. In Real Life, Capone was convicted by the jury, rather than having a plea deal (there was no offer of one anyway).
- In the first Wayne's World movie, one police officer is infamous for performing cavity searches on random motorists. This is a serious felony, when performed without a warrant; while the movie, as usual, attempts to justify this under Rule of Funny, it qualifies under the law as rape. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America features a paranoid ATF agent who routinely orders the same thing.
- In Double Jeopardy, Ashley Judd is framed by her husband for his own murder and serves prison time. When she gets out, she hunts him down and brags that she could kill him and get away with it because she's already been convicted of that crime and double jeopardy means she can't be prosecuted for it again. Problem is, she was convicted of that crime (that is, of "murdering" him at that specific time, in that specific place). Hunting him down to another city and killing him there, then, would be another crime entirely, and thus she could be justly convicted of it (not to mention simultaneously clearing herself of the first murder). There's also the host of other crimes she committed, including burglary, theft, destruction of property, escape from custody, assault on a law enforcement officer, unlicensed possession of a firearm, transporting an unlicensed weapon across state lines, assault with intent to kill (all of them violating her parole, which would send her back to prison) and probably more, which could put her away for years themselves, perhaps even for the same time or longer than her original sentence.
- In The Mighty Ducks:
- Lawyer Gordon Bombay is charged with DUI. His boss Ducksworth tells him that he has "talked to" the judge, who has agreed to "suspend the disposition of [Gordon's] case" and sentence Gordon to community service (coaching the titular pee-wee hockey team). It isn't at all clear what exactly the judge has agreed to-the judge can't impose a sentence unless the defendant has either pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial. (A lot of people misremember this scene, thinking that Ducksworth arranged a plea bargain without Gordon's consent. That would be illegal as well, but it isn't what happened in the movie. Ducksworth spoke to the judge, not the prosecutor. The prosecutor had already declined to consider a plea agreement.)
- In an earlier scene, Gordon strikes a nerve with the judge by citing an appellate court case in which that same judge was overruled. But the case Gordon cites is called Minneapolis v. Higgins, which is an implausible name for a criminal case. (In Minnesota, criminal prosecutions are always titled "State v. [Defendant's name]".) Unless it was a case in which the city of Minneapolis had been sued, lost, and then appealed. The trial case would have been Higgins v. Minneapolis (though it would be "City of Minneapolis").
- Law Abiding Citizen:
- The judge rules DNA evidence is inadmissible against the criminals who broke into Clyde Shelton's home and killed his family, later explained as one of the crime scene technicians having contaminated it. According to the DA, the "Exclusionary Principle" rules out most of the other valid evidence against them. The Exclusionary Rule would apply to evidence the police obtain in violation of the suspect's legal rights and any "fruit of the poisonous tree" (i.e. other evidence obtained as a result of what's been ruled as illegally obtained, not evidence that was compromised or mishandled after it was collected).
- They should have been able to get both intruders convicted based on Clyde's testimony alone, even if the DNA evidence was contaminated. Ames seemed more likely to have rolled than Darby anyway, since he apparently didn't participate in the actual murders/rapes (though he would still be on the hook due to the Felony Murder rule) and appeared upset by them (though whoever rolls on their accomplice first often gets the deal).
- While the City and County of Philadelphia are consolidated, which therefore gives the Mayor powers ordinarily wielded by the commissioners of other Pennsylvania counties, the District Attorney's office is independent. DAs in Pennsylvania are elected county officials, and the Assistant District Attorneys like Nick are county employees. The mayor of Philadelphia has no authority to fire an ADA, or promote an ADA to the position of county District Attorney.
- Oceans Eleven (the remake). There is a fictitious Nevada Gaming Commission law in the film stipulating that casinos in the state are required to hold a minimum amount of cash on the premises, in the event that a high-roller strikes the grand jackpot. Not surprisingly, the title characters hatch a plan to exploit this.
- Wall Street: While several actions noted as bad would count as immoral, the fact that the movie takes place a couple years before it was filmed means that several of the actions shown were not actually illegal during the film's time frame, despite Bud Fox's fears of losing his license or worse. In fact, Gordon Gekko most likely didn't break the law at all, but Bud Fox definitely broke the law by disclosing confidential information from his client (Gekko) to a competitor (Wildman) and using that information to cost his client millions.
- Changing Lanes. Everything from leaving the scene of the accident to turning off credit accounts without cause by themselves would get a real lawyer disbarred, not to mention prosecuted. At the scene where two firm partners started colluding with Gavin to forge a signature on a document, any real lawyer will declare "You Fail Law Forever" and walk out, not just because they're breaking four different ethical rules, plus numerous laws, the senior partners are trying to cover up the mistakes of a junior associate...by breaking the rules themselves! Seriously, anybody who pens a movie about lawyers behaving badly could at least try to read the actual rules first.
- In Judge Dredd, Dredd is convicted of murder because bullets from a Lawgiver pistol are tagged with the DNA of the Judge who fired them, and forensic examination revealed the tag to match up with Dredd ( and were actually from his twin brother Rico). Judge Hersey, the defense counsel, objects to the evidence on the grounds that she had not been informed of the existence of this evidence, much less been allowed to examine it, before it was presented at the trial. The court ( headed by the Corrupt Cop who arranged for the murder in the first place) ignores her entirely valid objection (assuming their law resembles our own-which is hardly given, since it was set in a future quasi-military dictatorship city state where the titular Judges can try, convict and sentence criminals on the spot. Only the Judges themselves are given actual courtroom trials with representation from counsel, apparently).
- It also does not seem like the DNA should match to begin with, as Rico is clearly not an identical twin of Dredd, which is the only case where they'd have the same DNA.
- In The Addams Family, Gomez challenges the (presumed fake) Fester's throwing his family out of the family estate and loses the case. While the court hearing is not seen apart from the verdict, the hearing is run by Gomez's neighbor, who rather obviously ruled against Gomez to get rid of him (being sick and tired of Gomez knocking golf balls through his windows), and in fact had been prepped to do so by Tully before the suit was filed. There is no way a judge with an easily provable association (positive or negative) with the plaintiff of a case would be allowed to judge that case in real life.
- In the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, when the villains move to have Kris Kringle forcibly committed, the entire commitment hearing hangs on Kringle's attorney proving that his client is not mentally ill at all. While that may have been the case when the original film was made, a Supreme Court ruling in 1975 states clearly that whether or not Kringle was simply mentally ill would be irrelevant to such a proceeding. The question would be whether or not he was a danger to himself or others. If he wasn't, he could believe he was Superman or Captain Nemo and it wouldn't matter. They couldn't commit him without his consent. He could still be charged (or more likely sued) for assault though. This is brought up and subverted in the original; the staff psychiatrist attempts to have Kringle committed based on his belief that he's really Santa Claus, but a geriatrician who works with Kris explains that this belief doesn't make him a danger to himself or those around him, so there's no need for such action.
- 12 Angry Men: Being convicted of first-degree murder does not result in an automatic death sentence. This isn't Society Marches On, though the length and likely outcome of the appeals process after a death sentence would likely be very long now (of course, New York state no longer has the death penalty, so he wouldn't face it anyway). The entire case, in real life, would have ended in a mistrial the moment it came to light that #8 had bought the exact same type of knife as used in the murder specifically to use in the deliberations.
- The judge (in the original film) didn't say it was legally an automatic death sentence, but that he would pass one if the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Of course, this may be an example itself, since it could unduly influence the jury (studies have shown that what sentence a defendant will get affects the verdict juries deliver). Nowadays the jurors decide what sentence the defendant should get too in capital cases after considering all the various aggravating vs. mitigating factors. Without such a recommendation for death, the judge can't sentence the defendant to it. Back when the play was written and the original film made, however, it was entirely the discretion of the judge, though the jury could ask for mercy if they wished. This arbitrariness was what led the US Supreme Court to strike down the existing capital punishment laws in 1972, to be replaced with the current standard. The judge in the 1997 remake echoes the original line, stating that she will not consider pleas for leniency should the jury find the defendant guilty. However, given that as stated above the jury decides what sentence the defendant should get, this is nonsensical and legally meaningless (though it could mislead jurors, which thus might get any death sentence they passed overturned).
- While the jurors do make the correct decision on reasonable doubt, the way they reach that position (by #8 wandering around the defendant's neighborhood conducting his own investigation) is major juror misconduct. Even if they acquitted, he could still be charged should it come out.
- In the HBO movie Mistrial, a key witness, drug dealer Willy Sandoval, ends up not testifying against accused cop-killer Eddie Rios because he had agreed to testify in the first place because he had been arrested for drug possession, and had made a deal to avoid punishment in exchange for his testimony. Judge Friel, the presiding judge in Rios' trial, rules that Detective Donahue's search of Sandoval was illegal, and thus excludes the evidence against Sandoval, forcing the prosecutor to drop the case against Sandoval, meaning that Sandoval ends up not testifying against Rios. Where to start with this? First, Judge Friel would have had no jurisdiction over the Sandoval case, and therefore no authority to suppress evidence against Sandoval. Secondly, Rios and his attorney would have had no standing to move for the suppression of evidence against Sandoval. Thirdly, there would have been no case against Sandoval, precisely because of the deal he made for his testimony, and thus no reason or opportunity for Sandoval to move for the suppression of evidence against him. Fourthly, even if the evidence against Sandoval got tossed by some other judge, Sandoval is a career drug dealer. Does anyone seriously think this would have been the last time he was in trouble with the authorities? He was a key witness in the murder of two police officers. Don't you think the police would have offered to let him walk on future drug offenses in exchange for his testimony?
- In Flight of the Intruder, the main characters are court-martialed for disobeying orders and bombing targets that they wanted to bomb rather than targets they were ordered to bomb. After finding out their fates, they are told that President Nixon is now ordering carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and that the Navy would look stupid if it tried to convict two pilots for carrying out Nixon's orders. Nixon ordering carpet bombing after the fact doesn't excuse these two pilots from disobeying orders and doing what they wanted to do prior to the order from Nixon.
- In The Fugitive, Helen Kimble's 911 call starts with her saying "There's somebody in my house", and her last words before dying, "Richard... he's trying to kill me...", are treated as the most damning piece of evidence against Kimble. Helen was calling to her husband and begging for help, not identifying him as the killer. Richard knows this. If his lawyer couldn't convince the jury of it, or at least instill reasonable doubt, he's so shockingly incompetent he should be disbarred. Of course, going on the lam doesn't help, plus he commits lots of crimes along the way prior to his exoneration. As with Double Jeopardy above, he still might be going to prison for a long time over all of that.
- There was a lot more evidence than just the 911 call though. His skin under her fingernails, the lack of forced entry into the house the intruder had keys, a financial motive, and so on. Certainly enough to convict.
- In Liar Liar Fletcher's secretary recounts the urban legend of a burglar falling through his victim's roof, injuring himself, and then successfully suing for it. Hopefully people realize this is legally impossible.
- Primal Fear acts like the insanity defense of accused murderer Aaron Stampler, if successful, would mean him easily getting out of a mental institution. This is highly unlikely-violent patients are, understandably, handled very strictly, as no one wants to be the one releasing a murderer who then kills again onto the streets. And the institutions for the criminally insane, which he would be sent to, are in fact often more confining than prisons.
- In A Time to Kill, Carl commits cold-blooded premeditated murder. He pleads temporary insanity (which is not a real defense-it's just insanity, temporary or not). The defense's closing argument does not mention insanity, but plays on the jury's emotions to convince them of justifiable homicide, after failing to prove insanity. And that's just the biggest example. Of course, they are not actually trying to prove insanity, and it's privately acknowledged several times that he knew exactly what he was doing. What they're trying to do is go for jury nullification, which no respectable judge would allow. Of course, the jury can still ignore his instructions, and once they acquit, no one can overrule them. It's very unlikely a Real Life judge would let him go through with his speech (however, in the book it's a juror who does the "imagine she's white" talk, while in the jury room, thus getting the rest to acquit).
- In Beverly Hills Cop, there is a great deal of discussion of how they can legally search suspected drug trafficker Victor Maitland's warehouse, and whether it is possible to get around a need for a search warrant. At one point, Axel Foley tells Det. Rosewood that he can't come with Axel and Jenny into the warehouse, because Billy is a cop in Beverly Hills, and therefore needs a search warrant, such that if Rosewood comes with them, anything they find will be ruled inadmissible on the grounds of it being the fruit of an illegal search. The problems with this are twofold: first, any judge with a triple-digit IQ is going to hold that Axel was acting as an agent of the Beverly Hills police, and therefore apply the same standards to him as to Rosewood. Secondly, they don't need a warrant, because Jenny Summers, who is with them, is the manager of Maitland's legitimate business interests and has a key to the warehouse, which she uses to admit them. If the police are admitted to a place, such as a warehouse, and given permission to search there, by a person who has been given access to the place by the owner, as Jenny has, then the search is reasonable on its face. That is, Jenny has the authority to consent to the search, and a consensual search does not require a warrant or probable cause.
- In The Star Chamber, the evidence which Judge Harlan is forced to throw out in two murder cases shown (driving him into the ranks of the titular vigilante group) would not be suppressed according to California state or federal rules in 1983, thus negating the whole plot.
- In Dream Lover, main character Ray is committed to a mental institution when his scheming wife Lana makes him look crazy. He gets revenge by luring Lana in to visit him and killing her, proclaiming that since she's had him declared insane, he isn't legally responsible. As with Primal Fear, that might be the case (although it's hardly a given). Even if an insanity defense were successful, though, he'd likely go right back into the hospital, and might never get released. Depending on the state, he might still go to prison anyway. Some have abolished the insanity defense, while others provide a "guilty but insane" verdict which means a defendant still gets incarcerated, but is treated in the prison psychiatric ward at the same time.
- Fracture has Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) on trial for the attempted murder of his wife, who'd cheated on him. Due to various ploys, he has some of the prosecution's key evidence excluded and gets acquitted. Then, to make things worse, he decides to remove his wife from life support (who's in a coma since he shot her), as he's her next-of-kin. Young prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) gets a court order to stop him, but hospital security prevents him from entering the room, and his wife dies. Beachum then finds some new evidence, and looks up exceptions to double jeopardy with which to file a murder charge against Crawford. The movie closes with Crawford on trial again, this time with the expectation that he'll get found guilty and justice will be served. First of all: security guards likely would get in trouble for stopping a person waving a court order. Aside from that, the supposed exception to double jeopardy doesn't hold up. Attempted murder is a lesser included offence to murder, meaning it merges with the other. Thus, if you're acquitted of one, it applies to the other as well. Collateral estoppel also prevents a party from re-litigating the same facts that were decided on previously. The Volock Conspiracy blog discusses all this here, including the fact that there was a lot more evidence against Crawford than was excluded which he could have been convicted on to begin with.
- ...And Justice for All: It doesn't seem that Kirkland should be in danger of losing his license over telling the police his former client was probably the one forcing lit cherry bombs into people's mouths. Attorney-client privilege only applies to past crimes, and this was a crime the client fantasized about committing in the future. In that case, attorneys are actually required to notify the police of what their client plans.
- Red Lights: It's quite unlikely Leonardo would get arrested when his act is exposed as fake, let alone imprisoned. The scene is obviously based on the debunking of faith healer Peter Popoff by James Randi, and not only was Popoff not prosecuted, his followers were outraged with Randi for exposing him (Popoff is still going strong to this day). In the same way, if the people hoodwinked were unwilling to press charges (very likely) he obviously wouldn't go to jail. These cases are notoriously hard to prosecute in Real Life, though Randi offers to testify for the prosecution if they do, and has done so before.
- The Butterfly Effect: Evan wouldn't go to a regular prison, but county lockup, since he hadn't even been tried. The filmmakers knew this-it was cooler filming in a prison though.
- In True Believer (1989), James Woods plays Eddie Dodd, a former radical attorney who's sunken to defending drug dealers. He seems to defend them solely by arguing for jury nullification, citing the invasions of constitutional rights in the war on drugs, and saying they should find his client "not guilty" in protest. In reality, the prosecutor would immediately object when he started on anything except the evidence presented, and the judge would sustain. No respectable judge allows lawyers to argue for jury nullification in front of them. It's also somewhat unlikely his client would get a new trial due to one eyewitness coming forward to say someone else committed the murder (and a less than credible one at that). It's forgotten as well that, although he didn't commit the murder he'd been sent to prison for, he did kill another inmate during a staged death match. It's mentioned the prosecution will make a deal for that if he pleads guilty to both crimes early on, but then that's dropped when he goes to trial on the original murder charge instead. He gets cleared of that, but not for the prison killing. Presumably that charge was dropped too, but it's never made clear.
- The Violent Years: So the grandparents of an orphaned child have to specifically petition the courts for custody, and the same judge that just presided over a murder trial can turn them down because he thinks they're neglectful and a state orphanage is a better place for the baby than with an affluent family? In Real Life - even then - the judge would be overturned on appeal at warp speed, likely followed by a rebuke from the state judicial review board.
- The judge then advises that families turn to the church, neglecting the idea that there are religions other than Christianity, much less the separation of church and state.
- The judge also states that the man is an old friend, aka a clear conflict of interest that would never be allowed.
- Discussed in Nancy Drew by an actor playing a detective on a TV series set in the 1950s (Bruce Willis in a cameo) who notes they have police in the show give Miranda warnings, which didn't come about until 1966.
- Dirty Harry got hit with this bad when it came to Scorpio getting released from prison. Basically the only thing that would be inadmissible is his confession due to the fact that he hadn't been Mirandized and had been tortured for that information. Nothing else would be thrown out. Scorpio could've been arrested for assault, possessing a deadly weapon, and attempted murder. The evidence they found would be admissible under "exigent circumstances" standard today, but at the time this had yet to be enacted by the courts. However, Scorpio may not have had a constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures, given that he was squatting (the groundskeeper let him live in his shed, which isn't legal without permission by the stadium's owner). However, courts have held that even homeless people squatting in public parks have the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures-the key is whether it can be considered their "house", even if they're squatting there, so that part's unclear.
- In Goodnight for Justice and its sequels, John Goodnight, a federal circuit judge working in Wyoming Territory is shown presiding over even murder trials without a jury, in blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.
- Pratical Magic: Without a search warrant, any evidence Gary collected would be deemed inadmissible in a court of law and thus could not be used against them. Not to mention that by repeatedly stealing Sally's mail, he is in fact committing a felony himself.
- Alex Cross novel Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson. The book is about a white attorney, Ben Corbett, coming to his hometown of Eudora, Mississippi and investigating lynchings and the Klan at the command of President Teddy Roosevelt, putting the book's date range between September 14, 1901 and March 4, 1909. The book fairly drips with examples of this trope. Here are a few:
- In a town dominated by the Klan (which had been officially disbanded since around 1877 and which didn't exist in its modern form until 1915, but that's another issue) and in which the sheriff is a sincere member of the Klan, two "White Raiders" who have come to lynch an old black man and his granddaughter die—one by falling off the roof and the other by being stabbed in the back by the granddaughter. The granddaughter is not only not convicted of murder or manslaughter—she never even gets ARRESTED. It seems that Patterson forgot that self-defense is a plea the defendant makes in court, not an excuse for the cops not to arrest someone, and racist, Klan member cops would be especially unlikely not to.
- Ben Corbett's father is appointed judge in the trial of the three surviving Raiders (yes, they were arrested by the sheriff who's a Klansman and who believes in what they're doing). This makes no sense, as Judge Corbett seems pretty low on the judicial hierarchy. Corbett tries traffic cases. And small claims cases between neighbors. This is a case of attempted murder. Newsflash, Patterson: Corbett is a judge of a small-town CIVIL court, not the judge of a county or state CRIMINAL court. Corbett's court doesn't have jurisdiction.
- The sheriff tells another cop to read the surviving Raiders their rights. The concept of the Miranda rights didn't come into existence until the Supreme Court decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966). It's somewhere between 1901 and 1909. Miranda rights don't EXIST yet; Ernesto Miranda himself wouldn't even be born until the '40s.
- Ben, mid-trial, gets an idea: he and one of his friends will break into the photography offices of Scooter Williams, who takes pictures of every single lynching, and steal the photos and the negatives. Then he will bring the stolen pictures into court as evidence. This ignores several facts:
- Stolen pictures may be inadmissible. This may or may not be a handicap: Most states didn't have a rule against this before Mapp v. Ohio, and even now it only applies to police or people acting as their agents. So they would be liable for burglary and theft, but the pictures could still be admitted.
- Even if they weren't stolen, the grisly pictures are horrible, yes, and they are certainly proof that lynching exists, which is what Roosevelt wanted Ben to find...but they aren't evidence of anything in this case. They DO prove that the men who went to the Crosses' house had attended lynchings. But they don't prove that these men went to the Crosses' to commit a lynching OR that they attacked the Crosses with intent to commit murder, and any first-year law student would argue as much...
- ...If the pictures weren't considered prejudicial to the jury and thrown out of the evidence list during preparations for the trial.
- And since the evidence lists are prepared before trial and are seen by attorneys for both sides, it's unlikely that the judge would accept new evidence mid-trial that the other side hadn't seen—even if the evidence was obtained legally AND proved that the defendants were guilty.note
- Moody Cross (the aforementioned granddaughter and Alex Cross's ancestor) is called to the stand and perjures herself by saying that yes, the Raiders had a search warrant and she agreed to let them in, and my goodness, she doesn't know WHY they attacked after that. Ben thinks that this changes everything because now the official story isn't that the Crosses fought men who were performing their legal duty, but that the Crosses acted like good citizens and admitted the representatives of the law, who then attacked them. He seems unaware that:
- a) the stories the Crosses told and that the Raiders told would have been recorded in the briefs both sides filed with the court, so changing the story now would raise all kinds of questions about "Why are you changing your story? Were you lying then or are you lying now?"; and
- b) there is STILL no physical evidence that proves that the Raiders attacked the Crosses and not the Crosses the Raiders.
- When it's time for closing arguments, Jonah Curtis (the prosecutor) tells Ben to make the closing speech. Never mind that Ben isn't listed as an attorney for the prosecution, but as a prosecution witness, and therefore has no right to make the speech.
- Jennifer Government is chock full of this. Highlights include penalty clauses in murder for hire contracts being legally enforceable (even while murder itself remains a crime) and it being perfectly viable to sue a person for property damage incurred by being thrown onto the property by a fleeing criminal. Justified by being set in a world where big business has suborned almost all functions of government and law enforcement.
- In the Gordon Korman young adult novel Son of Interflux, toward the end of the book, one of Simon's crazy teachers shows up at a speech and, removing her coat, reveals what look like sticks of dynamite strapped to her body. When she detonates the "bomb", tinny music plays and a flag that reads "BOOM" pops out. When Simon's father indignantly demands that the police arrest the woman, they reply that there is no law against impersonating a deadly weapon. Except that there absolutely is such a law, in as many words-there are laws explicitly prohibiting planting fake bombs.
- The bizarre tragicomic ending of Mark Twain's "From the London Times of 1904," where it's determined that even though the defendant has been shown not to have committed the crime he's been convicted of, the conviction cannot be overturned, but since the crime wasn't committed, he can't be pardoned. The former is based on a French legal precedent, but the latter is implied to be preexisting law, even though even in the nineteenth century, actual innocence was a common reason for a pardon, to get around the more tedious process of having a court decision annulled, although such petitions for clemency were sometimes not accepted. The "precedent" cited was Alfred Dreyfus' conviction, which is unfortunately not fictional, however he was finally pardoned after the time this story was written.
- Holes: Wrongly Accused protagonist Stanley Yelnats at his trial doesn't have a lawyer. Not "got a bad lawyer" or "can't afford a good one", he doesn't have a lawyer at all, even though that's constitutionally mandated in America. The curse on his family must be quite powerful to do that.
- Since over half of the juvenile defendants that Judge Ciaverella sent to prisons that him for the inmates were tried and sentenced without representation, Holes may deserve a pass on that one.
- Unfortunately juvenile defendants do not have a right to counsel in every case (or trial by jury, a transcript, etc.) Shameful yes, but also Truth in Television.
- One case handled by Lord Darcy has a man attempt to commit murder with black magic but fail because the intended victim had been shot earlier that evening. Darcy actually states that while the man obviously wasn't the murderer, it was possible to charge him for attempted murder, since he had indisputably tried to do it.
- Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher in the 1600s, argued on the same basis that witches "are justly punished"-he didn't believe witchcraft really existed, but if they did, it was committing attempted murder and other crimes by attempting to harm them with magic spells, in his view.
- In The Fountainhead, the jury finds him not guilty even after he confesses to dynamiting the building, because of his big Character Filibuster about how artistic integrity and the evils of collectivism justified blowing up a half-completed housing project because someone changed his design. We're supposed to view this jury nullification as a victory for the right side, even though he destroyed a housing project. You'd think it would conflict with Ayn Rand's strong support of property rights...
- In Eight Million Gods, the main character's mother keeps trying to have cops track her down and throw her in an insane asylum. The character's mental condition is OCD. Specifically, a compulsive need to write horror fiction. This is clearly not a condition that puts herself or anyone else in danger. In fact, it's arguably beneficial, since she's been making a living off of the royalties of the books her compulsion creates. It's implied that her mother gets away with this because she's a wealthy politician with lots of influence.
- In Regina's Song, the Seattle Slasher is placed under protective custody, but not actually arrested, when the police find out who she is. This is because they are obliged to read suspects their rights on arresting them, and make sure that the suspect understands those rights, and since their suspect was completely incoherent at the time, they couldn't be certain she understood her rights. While the making certain a suspect understands their rights when reading them is probably true, police only need to do this if they intend to use any statements made by the suspect as evidence, and they didn't need to in this case. They had more than enough physical evidence (the murder weapon, with the killer's prints and the latest victims blood all over it, in her purse) to convict, and in any case lisping in a self-invented language nobody else understands would not be admissible evidence in court, as neither attorney would be able to prove that the defendant is saying something incriminating or exonerating.
Live Action TV
- Any series set in Britain where someone "claims" the right of trial by jury. It does not exist in the UK. For some major crimes, trial by jury is mandatory (murder, rape, etc), but for many others, the prosecution will decide whether to prosecute in summary or solemn proceedings. The caveat to summary proceedings, where the role of finder-of-fact is performed by a judge, is that the court's sentencing powers are severely limited (hence why serious crime is tried in solemn proceedings).
- Accused, a British TV show where each episode opens with a person on trial (not always for murder, either) and then reveals through flashbacks how they got there, contains one example. In the second episode, it's a British soldier who served in Afghanistan. Problem is, the crime he's accused of occurred in Afghanistan on a British military base, against a fellow soldier, yet he's put on trial in a civilian court back in the UK. Any crime on a military base, committed by a soldier, against another soldier, would fall under military jurisdiction and be tried by a military court, not civilian.
- All in the Family: One episode contained probably Hollywood's worst misunderstanding of Miranda rights ever. And considering how badly Hollywood usually understands that subject, that's saying a lot. In that episode, Archie is mugged and reports the crime to the police. The police catch the perpetrator and read him his Miranda rights in perfect English after the arrest. However, they have to release him because the mugger didn't understand a word of English. As stated in "Common Examples" above, that's NOT how Miranda rights work.
- On Bones, Diplomatic immunity is badly abused in two cases. In the first, a diplomat is threatened with being returned home to be prosecuted, in which case she'll be put in prison and killed by other inmates. To avoid this, she waives immunity. Too bad for her, immunity belongs to the state, not the individual, so she can't actually waive her own immunity. Later, Pelant falsifies records to claim Egyptian citizenship, without any mention of him actually having (fake) diplomatic status. Somehow, all Egyptian tourists are diplomats now.
- From the Boston Legal page. Please note that David E. Kelley is a former lawyer, and as such, he chucked realism under Rule of Funny.
- Even non-lawyers know that lawyers can't meet with judges ex parte, and that evidence has to be relevant to be admissible.
- One episode featured the lawyers representing the estate of a soldier killed in Iraq, under a state law fraud theory in state court due to misrepresentations by the recruiter. Everything about this is wrong: the federal government can't be sued on a tort theory in state court, the federal government can only be sued for a tort like fraud under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the government is immune to tort suits surrounding military operations, the Feres Doctrine would bar the suit in any event, and the FTCA also exempts the government for causes of action that accrue overseas. All of these mistakes are in one storyline of one episode.
- Another one featured Alan's assistant refusing to pay her federal income taxes. She was charged criminally, and argued that she didn't pay because she disagreed with various government policies. Alan then asked the jury to return a not guilty verdict for that reason, and they did so. Perhaps needless to say, that's not a valid defense, such evidence would never be admitted, and Alan's argument would also not be permitted. There are many real life cases on this issue, because so many out there are eager to not pay their taxes.
- An entire trial in L.A. Law was dedicated to ridiculing the idea of a tax-protester who refused to pay his federal taxes because of silly government programs like measuring cow-flatulence etc; the jury just told him the obvious moral (i.e. "preachy message") of the story: that "the little people" only had the right to vote against policies they don't like— otherwise they should just shut up and pay their taxes (that would be the law's position too).
- Carl Sack and Lorraine represent Nantucket, Massachusetts when they want to build a nuclear bomb for protection. Any real judge would throw that out of court instantly and then order the lawyers to be examined for mental reasons.
- Sam Puckett on iCarly is arrested for assaulting an ambassador and gets off scot-free and never has to deal with the issue. Rule of Funny obviously applies.
- Columbo utilized the same Hollywood Law trope in every episode— while also being something of a Jerk Ass: Columbo would basically disguise his surveillance of a suspect, by pretending to simply question the person as a witness— nonstop throughout the episode. In this manner he would thus badger, harass and trick the suspect into revealing evidence that would eventually convict them. This is highly illegal, breaching many various civil and ethical protections against police abuse and harassment; however, even when suspects complain about Columbo's nonstop harassment in order to end it, this proved no avail, as Columbo would simply claim that it "proves" that the person is guilty, and that "he's touching a nerve." This made Columbo into more of a Vigilante Man than a policeman, since he was always right, and never incorrectly harasses an innocent person: however in reality, the law is not made to presume that the police are always right, but to protect the citizen's presumption of innocence. For evidence why this is necessary, you need only look at people wrongly convicted of murder, often due at least in part to overzealous police and prosecutors who are completely sure of their guilt.
- This fits the mold of most "cop shows," i.e. the police are always right, even when torturing suspects (e.g. NYPD Blue). The moral is that it's smart to trade liberty for security, since the villain always uses his rights to get Off on a Technicality through Loophole Abuse.
- Columbo also had a bad habit of tampering with evidence. The way he handled evidence, there was no chain of custody and most of what he would try to admit wouldn't be permissible in court because he would just walk around, pick something up, put it in his pocket, and keep it there until he was ready to share it with the murderer.
- In one instance, Columbo is visiting the suspect at his office. While waiting in the office for the guy to come in, Columbo takes a piece of gum out of the wastebasket. Later he shows it to the suspect, as well as the piece of bitten cheese from the crime scene.note Problems include: the wastebasket was in the office, and does not come under the 'garbage is public property' ruling; the trash has to be out at the curb, in a dumpster, etc. Also, any real forensic detective would have fits at Columbo hauling around a vital piece of evidence like that cheese like that, in a plastic bag, without even an evidence label. Broken custody chain of evidence = darn near impossible to use in court.
- An episode of True Blood had this, where Sam is arrested because there was a girl with a gaping hole in her chest in his diner's freezer. Sure, this has happened before, which would make him a suspect, but there's no evidence that he actually did anything. To quote Videogum, "Well, you probably did it because you were the only person here when we showed up. Police work."
- That would be sufficient probable cause to justify an arrest-the bar is not set very high. Note that he's released after they don't find any more evidence implicating him.
- Frasier often uses the trope of "the legal victim."
- In a famous episode, Frasier and Daphne are sued by jilted super lawyer Donny Douglas, for "breach of (marriage) contract" (Daphne's last-minute refusal to marry Donny) and "tortuous interference in a private contract" (via Frasier's meddling). Breach of promise of marriage is not grounds for a suit anymore in most jurisdictions. Washington state had also ended punitive damages in suits at the time Donny sought them in his. It also could only be applied against the man who broke his promise to a woman, never against a woman who broke her promise to a man. note Also, it is incorrect terminology, since Daphne had never actually entered into any contract. Donny, a lawyer, should have known he himself could be sued for doing that (it's called abuse of process). It's also not "tortious interference" for someone to urge a bride against going through with their marriage.
- Likewise on an earlier episode, Frasier was deliberately sold a counterfeit painting for $60,000, but is told the police "have their hands full with murders and robberies" so apparently they can't be bothered to investigate this. While it's stated that he could sue, Martin tells him that he'd end up losing more money than he paid for the painting that way. In reality, the police tend to take fraud and grand theft very seriously, particularly against a rich and influential person such as Frasier, who's father, having connections due to being a former cop, likely could pull strings to get the case handled quicker as well.
- Martin, a former police detective, also recounts a Miranda Rights example, where he lied about having fully read them when the suspect actually broke free mid-way through and he had to chase him down. As shown above, the failure to Mirandize does not make an arrest invalid, and even if it did, the interruption was the suspect's fault, so he had no need to lie about it at all.
- Law & Order:
- One episode had Jack McCoy team up with a judge to get a drunk driver convicted of multiple counts of second degree murder as part of the judge's crusade. Jack went so far as to blackmail a witness into being out of the country during the trial and suppressed all evidence that the guy was drunk off his rocker when he committed the crime, with the judge DeusExMachinaing on Jack's behalf all the way. Fortunately, during the trial, Jack came to his senses, and started to show the evidence that the guy was drunk (and so was guilty of Manslaughter, but not murder). The only reason the judge didn't report Jack's abuses in the trial was because he was in as deep. In that one, at least, they acknowledged that what McCoy and the judge were doing was wrong, and it's brought up several times later on as an example of McCoy's willingness to engage in improper conduct if he thinks he can get away with it (nowadays lots of drunk drivers have started to face murder charges, so they could do this legally if the episode were written more recently).
- In an older episode, a guy beats his girlfriend (with her consent) to cause a miscarriage and frame the rich lawyer they intended to sue, taking careful measure to ensure the fetus was under 24 weeks old so they could avoid going to prison. Ben and the others act like there is nothing they can do and have to use all sorts of legal loopholes, never mind the original couple conspired to commit blackmail, perjury, defamation, entrapment, and fraud.
- Too many examples to list, but whenever a judge tosses out evidence against the defendant early on during a trial to make the case that much harder for the prosecution, though the defendant will always get their just desserts in one way or another. However, one prominent example comes to mind:
- "Hubris": a warrant is issued to search the suspect's apartment but the courier hasn't brought it yet. Knowing the suspect will get there before the warrant, Det. Green sticks a toothpick in his lock to keep him from entering. The courier arrives a few seconds later and the police bust in and seize a videotape of the murders. The judge tosses the tape since the police secured the area before they had the warrant (even though they had reason to believe he'd destroy the evidence and were well aware the warrant had been issued). Then the judge allows the defendant to do two things he shouldn't have: call an alibi witness to perjure herself and take the stand to testify on his own behalf. Not only were the tapes admissible to cross-examine both of them but the defendant was clearly guilty of perjury considering he was representing himself and had personal knowledge he was suborning perjury. It is also totally legal to secure a scene if there's a concrete possibility that the evidence will be removed, destroyed, or otherwise endangered before the search warrant arrives. What the police can't do is start poking around, looking in drawers and such, before the warrant arrives.note
- In "Patient Zero," a man is charged with killing his mistress's child (dosing them with stolen SARS virus that she survived). His wife testifies that she was with him at the time, but breaks down on the stand and changes her story a couple of times. Outside the courtroom, she admits that she was deliberately playing the jury, and the jury returns a not guilty verdict because they can't be sure what the truth is. McCoy and Southerlyn watch the husband and wife walk out of court hand-in-hand, and are apparently so bewildered by their defeat that they completely forget they have an iron-clad case for perjury against the wife. Not to mention completely ignoring the handful of felonies the husband committed in getting the SARS virus to begin with.
- In "Gunshow," the season ten premiere, a gunman opens fire on a crowd in a public park, killing over a dozen people. Once arrested, he confesses to the police. The judge in the case, however, excludes the confession on the grounds that the suspect's mother had told Lt. van Buren that she was calling a lawyer for her son, and that the police therefore had no right to continue the interview, since the suspect's right to counsel had been invoked. The problem is that the suspect was not a minor, and, as such, his mommy could not invoke his right to counsel for him. If he was properly Mirandized, and did not invoke his right to an attorney, nor his right to remain silent, then the police had every right to continue questioning him. The only reason for this was so that McCoy would end up prosecuting the gun manufacturer instead note in one of the more Anvilicious (to say nothing of asinine) episodes in the show's run.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
- In "Crush", the DA forces detective Benson to arrest a teenage girl on child porn charges (for "sexting" pictures of herself) in an effort to coerce her into testifying against an attacker. When she does so, the DA attempts to drop the charges, but the judge overrules her and sentences the girl to several years in prison. While the end of the episode reveals that the judge was corrupt, this has two problems. First, the arrest was an obvious case of Malicious Prosecution, which is a felony, and was one of the few cases (it's a notoriously difficult charge to prove in most jurisdictions) in which it would be an open and shut case. Second, even in juvenile court, the judge has no power to do any of that.
- SVU has far more. Best one is evidence getting tossed because the man was part of a conspiracy with a lawyer and a thug and knew where the body was. Attorney-client privilege was used to toss it. Privilege doesn't work like that, especially if its a conspiracy a lawyer is involved with, and even more so if a third person who's not a spouse was privy to it as well. As was explicitly pointed out on the mothership, at least once.
- In "Popular", a nurse cites doctor-patient privilege in refusing to talk with Detective Stabler when she treats a middle school girl who claims her teacher raped her. Captain Cragen, Stabler's wife and even the victim herself give Stabler grief for bothering to do his damn job and investigate the rape; even Stabler treats the whole thing like he's breaking procedure because the privilege is so sacrosanct. Doctor-patient privilege does not cover evidence of a crime: when a medical professional comes across evidence of things such as child abuse, they are required by law to report it to the authorities. A clear-cut admission from their patient would leave them with no wiggle room whatsoever for neglecting their duty in this case.
- In "Manipulated", the detectives use a facial recognition program to compare a picture taken on the street to the DMV records for driver's licenses. The judge later throws this out, claiming that the technology was too inconclusive and all the subsequent evidence was tainted. A person has no privacy expectation in a picture taken on a public street or their driver's license photo, so comparing them to each other cannot possibly be a violation of the 4th Amendment. Without a violation, the tree isn't "poisoned" and the remaining evidence is acceptable. What's more, the unreliability of the technology bears upon its admissibility at trial, but they don't need the computer match at trial-once the computer found the picture, the detectives confirmed it by the eyeball test and the suspect's admission. Even further, they already knew of the suspect because he was the husband of the victim's boss and they had an easy argument for inevitable discovery (they would have recognized him from the photo given time).
- In "Presumed Guilty", even after it was revealed that Fin's ex-brother-in-law had been stopping the attack against Fr. Shea, he is still labeled a vigilante, and the Obstructive Bureaucrat DA says he had no business assaulting someone while on parole, but should have just called 9-1-1. In Real Life, the law recognizes the difference between vigilantism, which is illegal, and defense of a third party, which is not. If you see a crime, such as a burglary or vandalism in progress, and you assault the criminal, or you assault a criminal after a crime has been committed, that is vigilantism. If, however, you see someone being assaulted, you are well within your rights to intervene, even if you literally have to fight off the assailants. (N.B. In some jurisdictions, you had better make sure the person you are helping is actually the victim.)
- Matlock turned the Cornered Stool Pigeon into a Beaten Dead Horse; in every episode, Matlock would simply corner the witness with new and unaccepted evidence, which he had not previously shared with the prosecution, and basically convict the person on the spot with some ridiculous Deus ex Machina.
- There was even an episode called The Juror that was basically 12 Angry Men Matlock version.
- In Northern Exposure, a young Jewish doctor named Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) goes to medical school for free, in exchange for agreeing to practice in an Anchorage, Alaska, hospital for four years. However when the contract falls through and he is released from it, he then finds that the Fine Print sentences him to a four-year prison sentence, if he fails to practice for four years in the boondock town of "Cicily" instead (the legality of which is likewise confirmed by an Amoral Attorney). This is a classic case of bad research, in that such a contract is not only legally impossible, but would in fact constitute involuntary servitude under the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution-needless to say this is totally illegal. Insult is added to injury, likewise, when the doctor later learns that the contract somehow binds him to five years of practice, rather than four (actually a shallowly disguised plot device to extend the series). In addition, the doctor is threatened with death by a Vigilante who owned the contract, if Fleischman tries to break it. In actuality, the doctor could only be subject to civil suit for damages, as well as possible revocation of his medical license; and a death threat naturally is a crime by itself. While this would sway most people, the writers clearly chose to pursue Hollywood Law (as well as Vigilante Execution) as the first in a long series of many tropes which would later characterize the series.
- In a British example, an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey ended with a revelation that a woman who promised to quit as a lawyer if certain offers were made did so by becoming a judge. Cut to a scene of her presiding over a case and giving her lawyer-husband a hard time.
- Another British example is Judge John Deed. Shall we count the ways?
- The eponymous judicial hero allows the jury to 'reconsider' their verdict on the basis of what the accused says just before sentence is passed. They change their minds and let him go.
- Judge Deed is sleeping with a pretty barrister, has a barrister for an ex-wife AND a barrister for a daughter (eventually). All three appear before him, with not a single person mentioning the clear conflict of interest at hand.
- After realizing the whole establishment is out to get him, said Judge begins a very public crusade to get the Home Secretary (a very senior politician) fired. In fairness, the Home Secretary is a complete ratbag who takes bribes from people who arrange the murder of a dangerous witness and make at least two attempts on Deed's life. From outside Deed looks like Hollywood Law, from inside he looks like The Last DJ.
- After deciding that a jury has been tampered with, Judge Deed decides that they should have found him guilty and, without any investigation as to jury tampering at all, puts the suspect in jail so there can be a retrial. The defense barrister is completely ignored, even after saying the magic words of "habeas corpus" and asking for directions to the Court of Appeal.
- The final episode of Seinfeld had the characters put on trial for standing by making fun of and videotaping an overweight man as he's being mugged, which violates a local "criminal indifference" law based on the one France enacted after the Paparazzi just stood around taking pictures while Princess Diana was dying after her car crash and doing nothing to help. All this means is bystanders must help someone when it doesn't endanger them (which it didn't-the mugger doesn't even seem to notice them), and the foursome admit they could have called 911. However, a police officer shows up almost right away (and is visible in a window reflection), so it's questionable whether they even had a duty to do this. On top of this, the specific Massachusetts law cited is actually a Good Samaritan liability law protecting bystanders from lawsuit for injury or death caused while helping someone. Also, even assuming they did violate the law, the later parade of negative character witnesses is extremely illegal in Real Life, as it doesn't show previous similar crimes. It's thus prejudicial and completely irrelevant. In addition, the prosecution may call character witnesses (even relevant ones) only if the defense makes character an issue (which they didn't, not surprisingly, because that would open this very can of worms).
- Veronica Mars had many of these, especially in Season 2. When Duncan had to kidnap his daughter? Not a chance in HELL the grandparents could have gotten custody away from the biological father, even if he hadn't been from a gazillionaire family - well, maybe a CHANCE, as 2/3 of the remaining gazillionaire family members had been investigated &/or tried for interfering in the murder investigation of their daughter, because they believed their son, the father, was guilty due to a medical condition which causes uncontrollable, unpredictable and violent blackouts. Also, the mother was also from a gazillionaire family and big in their church. The trial of Aaron Echolls at the end of season 2 had the defense attorney asking about Veronica's sexual history and confidential medical info, then directly introduce hearsay from an absent 3rd party (directly, as in the lawyer himself told the jury that the absent person had said X).
- Reality Is Unrealistic. California evidence law was the first to be codified and differs in several ways from most states, especially when Proposition 8 in 1980 made a lot more fair game. If sexual history is relevant, even just to show bias, it's allowable so long as not to prove consent to a rape. Hearsay from an absent 3rd party may also be used on cross-examination to a witness, provided it meets certain qualifications. However that's usually a stupid idea as attacking character of a witness allows the defendant's character to be attacked. But bringing in Veronica's medical records should've brought a mistrial and sanctions (if not disbarment) against Echolls' lawyer, as those are wholly confidential.
- In The Drew Carey Show, Mimi Bobek originally gets a job with Drew's company, by threatening to sue for "discrimination" if they refuse to hire her for wearing clown-like makeup and clothing on the job, claiming that it's "discrimination against her appearance." However, such laws only pertain to a person's natural appearance, not the way a person chooses to look— and clown make-up and clothing are obviously chosen, not natural. And, in the US, laws don't protect discrimination on the basis of general appearance (i.e. you look like a clown, you're not going to get a job-that's perfectly legal and understandable). There's a limited number of protected characteristics (race, religion, gender, etc.) that are the only ones you can't refuse to hire based on. Or if it's something protected by the Constitutionally-protected Rule of Funny (Never mentioned which constitution).
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: "Invisible Evidence": a patrolman stops a car for a broken tail light, arrests the driver on an outstanding warrant and a CSI finds evidence of a murder in the trunk. The judge tosses the evidence because neither the patrolman nor the CSI applied for a warrant to search the trunk. The 4th amendment is exempted whenever a person is being arrested in their car (covering the patrolman) and anytime a car is impounded, the police have to inventory its contents (the CSI).
- Slightly different now; the Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant rules that a "search incident to arrest" at a car can only be conducted if the search is likely to turn up evidence of the crime the person is being arrested for. You can search the car of someone being arrested for DUI for alcohol bottles but you can't if you're arresting him for reckless driving for example. IF the police SEIZE the car however, an "inventory search" can be conducted at the impound lot on the grounds that the police don't want to be accused of stealing something from the car if the perp is let go.
- Of course as it turned out when the CSI team reinvestigate the case, searching for evidence that will be admissible, they discover that the driver was innocent - he was being framed by the car wash employee, who planted the bloody knife in the back seat and smashed the tail light so he would be stopped.
- The fourth season of LOST had "Eggtown", in which the flash-forwards followed Kate's murder trial. For every one aspect of the law it got right, it got three or four wrong. For a comprehensive list of all the blunders, see its page on Lostpedia. Just to start with, it takes place in California, for an Iowa murder she's accused of, and goes off from there.
- Another big one: Kate's mother suddenly has a change of heart and refuses to testify against her, which somehow destroys the prosecution's entire case. Even if she can't be convicted of her father's murder anymore, how does the loss of this testimony have any impact on all the other crimes she committed?
- Torchwood: Miracle Day has the governments of the world (including the US) making major changes to the legal system almost overnight as a response to the Miracle. Some of these laws are clearly unconstitutional, yet no one takes notice and nothing is heard from the Supreme Court. As an example, they burn people who may be conscious alive, which is a violation of the 5th Amendment (deprivation of life without the due process of law) plus the 8th Amendment (i.e. cruel and unusual punishment), while Oswald Danes also gets the rule on double jeopardy wrong. You can't be tried more than once for the same crime. No one said your death sentence cannot be executed twice (many first attempts failed in the old days, e.g. if the rope broke). His claim for this being "cruel and unusual punishment" would only be accepted if they could not find a method of execution that wouldn't cause him undue pain. And if they couldn't, all that means is they couldn't attempt to execute him again-his sentence would be commuted to life, but he certainly wouldn't be set free.
- In an episode of Little House on the Prairie, Judd Larabee is accused of burning down Jonathan's barn. A judge is called in to preside over the case. When he arrives, he appoints Charles as the jury foreman even though Charles is the best friend of the victim. He then assigns Charles with the task of selecting a jury. Throughout the case, the judge scolds people for wasting the court's time when they try to present evidence. When the jury deliberates, they have 11 jurors who say Larabee is guilty and one juror who thinks he's not guilty. The judge then orders the one juror to stand up and explain why he thinks the man is not guilty before dismissing him from the jury. Then, he replaces the juror, but only after asking the replacement what his verdict would be. No one objects or finds any of these actions to be unusual.
- In an episode ("I'm Very Dangerous Tonight") of the TV show The Hunger, an FBI agent suspects a record executive of embezzling money from the record company. The FBI agent asks the wife of the son of the owner if she would turn her husband in, then does the same thing to the son of the owner, then to the owner himself. He seems to not have any real evidence of any kind and his only plan is to get each person to set the other up to take the fall.
- Raising Hope has convicted serial killer Lucy's conviction and death sentence commuted/expunged due to police taking what was considered excessive action during an escape attempt after she was electrocuted. First of all, the court system CAN'T commute your sentence because of a guard's actions in prison, especially murder convictions. Only the state governor or US President can commute sentences. Death row prisoners who almost escape don't make the top of the list, as you'd expect. Second, Lucy should have been left strapped into the electric chair until declared legally dead-she shouldn't have been able to even try her escape.
- Short-lived FOX legal procedural Justice (2006) centered around a criminal defense firm and their cases, somehow managing to avoid many common pitfalls. It took one move for all credibility to go flying out the window: the prosecution calling the defendant to the stand to testify. Neither the judge nor the legal team objected, but every student of US history did.Why?
- In the Blue Bloods episode "To Tell the Truth", Danny and Erin have difficulty convincing an eyewitness to testify against a gangster. To remedy this, the cops leak his location to the underworld, then wait for the gangsters to strike before swooping in to "rescue" him.
- In "Critical Condition", Jamie and his new partner, Sosa, stake out a park bench and wait for someone to take a bag of stolen goods. Jamie squirms over what he views as "borderline entrapment." In reality it would only qualify if they convinced someone to take the bag-just leaving it out there is completely legal.
- In "Old Wounds", Erin Reagan prosecutes a case where her ex-husband is the defense attorney, when in reality that would never happen, because such would be a conflict of interests. This also happens in other episodes, all without any comment.
- In "Protest Too Much", a young couple rob a bank, accidentally shooting a man in the process. Detective Danny Reagan is on the case. As the FBI agents investigating this point out, it's a federal crime to rob a bank, which includes any crimes committed during the course of that (even when the shooting was done by an off-duty NYPD cop's gun-he was at the bank and got disarmed by the bank robbers) meaning it should be an exclusive FBI investigation. The NYPD might not even be on the case at all.
- In "Unwritten Rules", police detective Danny gets upset with his prosecutor sister Erin when she won't press charges on a suspect identified as killing a police officer during an armed robbery because the eyewitness, an elderly woman, is shaky on it being him and she doesn't think she'll hold up. While it would still be enough to arrest him, she says to let him go. Later they tell the suspect there's another witness against him, and offer him a plea deal where he'd only do seven years in prison. Danny then "let's slip" the fact that this witness didn't identify him, and the suspect backs out at once, which is all part of their plan. He's then arrested due to the confession he signed to get the plea deal. While police and prosecutors can lie to a suspect, this does not apply to the terms of a plea bargain, and self-incriminating statements made on the promise of a deal cannot be used against them if it falls through. Very few people would make plea deals otherwise.
- In "Justice Served" its suspected that lawyer Angelo Gallo was shot because he dropped his client, a mob boss, who thought he would tell the police about killing a witness to make the case against him go away because supposedly "attorney-client privilege ends" when their business relationship does. Not even close-it applies to all past criminal activity clients admitted to (unless the lawyer themselves was party to it). Later on it turns out that Gallo knows the details of the contract killing his client ordered, which he gives to police. It's not made clear whether he knew about this before or after the crime had occurred, however. Assuming the latter, none of this information could be used against his client.
- In the same episode, Jamie's partner officer Edit "Eddie" Janko is almost date-raped in her apartment. She's reluctant to come forward out of fear she'll appear weak in front of fellow (particularly male) officers. Finally he convinces her to press charges. Rather than hand it off to the detectives who handle such crimes, however, Janko personally arrests the man who attacked her. This is a massive conflict of interest, as she's the one who's complaint they're arresting him on to begin with, a fact that any defense attorney would make hay out of.
- On a side note, it's very unlikely Danny, a homicide detective, would be allowed on the jury in a murder trial by the defense (though he turns out be on their side).
- In Forensic Files, also known as Mystery Detectives, a show that recounts murder mysteries and their details, the show often gives examples that are far too literal or what they call "conclusive" evidence, even having experts make the same statements in their own words. For example, after a woman is stabbed to death in her own home, her ex-boyfriend's name is spelled on the wall in blood, giving the impression that the dying woman knew her killer and left the name as a note to indicate her killer. The show points out that the woman was "exclusively" left-handed and said she would "never" have written anything with her right hand, ignoring the fact that the woman was dying and may have only been able to reach the wall with her right hand. At the same time, there was plenty of evidence to point at someone other than her ex-boyfriend and the killer was caught.
- The Merchant of Venice: the main plot is that Shylock the Jew has obtained the right to a pound of Antonio's flesh if he does not repay his loan. This is upheld in a court of law, despite the fact that in Elizabethan times, and to this day, you cannot make a contract that gives you the right to commit murder. This is possibly justified in that the trial takes place not in England but in Shakespeare's rendition of Venice, whose primary function is to serve as an exotic setting rather than a factual depiction of the city and its people.
- Also, Shylock handwaves this, by saying that he has no intention to kill Antonio, merely to take his flesh. If Antonio expires in the course of Shylock's doing so, Shylock argues this he is not liable as both parties entered into the agreement willingly and presumably aware of the possible consequences.
- Portia (in disguise) turns this around on him by saying yes, he can take his pound of flesh, but can't shed Antonio's blood in doing so, thus nullifying the contract. Shylock is also convicted of attempted murder for seeking it to begin with, has his property confiscated, and must convert to Christianity to avoid capital punishment.
- Trial By Jury disregards the rule of law in favor of the Rule of Funny. Every single character is in violation of the law or ethics at some point - including the judge, who during his introductory song freely admits that he's guilty of the very crime the defendant is accused of. Even the court usher tries to defame the defendant.
- L.A. Noire allows the player to search countless homes and businesses without once requiring a warrant.
- In the final case on the Patrol desk, Captain Donnelly asks Cole to interrogate the suspect in hopes of obtaining a confession...even though Cole has had zero training in doing so.
- The entire Ace Attorney series has a grand time zigzagging through this trope, going off of how much fun/difficult it makes the current trial. Usually the characters have no problem at all rummaging through people's stuff, but there's at least one instance where Phoenix won't let Maya read a letter in someone's apartment (never mind that they've poked through plenty of books, letters, and notes in other investigations). It's also unclear exactly whether or not the defense is allowed to poke around crime scenes. The characters usually make themselves right at home, but in Rise from the Ashes, Phoenix tries to keep Ema from attracting the attention of the detective on duty. In the trials themselves, the defense and the aide can get held in contempt of court for asking a witness to make absolutely sure she got details right in her testimony (a reasonable thing to wonder, given that she had misled the court earlier, and as it turns out, she was still lying), but the prosecution never seems to get in trouble for harassing, screaming at, threatening, whipping, or throwing things at the defense or the judge. Perhaps most infamously, the witnesses constantly change their stories and blatantly lie multiple times, but somehow never get in trouble for perjury. Some of this is justified in that the games were loosely based off of the Japanese legal system, which is somewhat different than the American one (no jury for starters) and the American version tries to further handwave it by setting it in the distant future, but it's still pretty goofy.
- In Ctrl+Alt+Del, based on Lilah's word, they were going to cavity search Christian after she indicates him as a terrorist in an airport. They don't seem particularly concerned about the implications of filing a false police report, nor pissing off someone who has demonstrated a willingness to spend lots of money to satiate his own petty whims.
- In xkcd the Black Hat Guy is being vetted for the position of Secretary of the Internet. Congress sentences him to death. Guess they brought back the ol' bill of attainder.
- Something Positive Plays With a variant of the Shooting a Corpse example—Kharisma spends months trying to murder Avogadro (with his consent, as part of a bet), only for him to die of natural causes. She winds up being found guilty of his murder anyway, since she has left copious evidence from her various attempts and admitted to trying to kill him. That being said, even as the comic covers her trial and appeal the fact that she is guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder seems rather understated.
- Cracked: Discussed in 7 Bullshit Police Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks to Movies), and The Five Most Wildly Illegal Court Rulings in Movie History point out many instances of this trope, including many listed here, such as The Untouchables, Primal Fear, A Time to Kill, 12 Angry Men, and Miracle on 34th Street. Note that not all of the examples are correct, though.
- To Boldly Flee has The Nostalgia Critic placed on house arrest not only before he has been convicted, not only before he has been charged, but before the applicable law has even been passed.
- Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law breaks just about every legal rule there is, but it's not exactly meant to be taken seriously by anyone. This was called attention to at one point; Birdman's passionate use of the insanity defense in the Devlin case actually moves the jury to tears and seems to ensure a win, but Der Spusmacher then tells Birdman that he can't use an insanity defense because it isn't a criminal trial.
- In a Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius episode, the titular character (who is ten) is thrown in an adult jail and forced to work on a chain gang after being accused of a crime, before a trial. Even more ridiculous, his friends are arrested and thrown on the chain gang simply for realizing (out loud) that Jimmy wanted them to smuggle him escape tools, despite not acting on this or even having an opportunity to.
- In The Powerpuff Girls, the titular characters and Princess Morbucks have both spent time in a jail for adult males despite them being little girls.
- Dexter's Laboratory: This is most relevant in the end of Season 2, Episode 32, Part 3: "Dexter Detention."
- Transformers Animated: Porter C. Powell was able to use his money and power to free Henry Masterson. Despite Masterson going on national television, declaring that he would blow up the Solar Power Plant, wiping out the state of Michigan, which would have killed at least several million people. Powell also talked Masterson's way out of punishment for his crimes in that episode. Regardless of the validity of his argument about a robot's rights, Masterson lied to the police about a Decepticon attack and nobody said anything about arresting him for that. Masterson remained on Sumdac Enterprises' payroll until Isaac Sumdac returned and fired him.
- Family Guy has never made any claims to realism, but the episode "Peterotica" deserves special mention. Put briefly, Lois's father Carter Pewterschmitt lends Peter $5.00 (that he kept at the bottom of a jar filled with salt and razor wire) to publish Peter's erotic writings. Peter uses the $5 to make photocopies that he sells and credits Carter as publisher. One reader gets into a car accident when he decides to take his shirt off while driving and listening to a book on tape version, then sues Carter and sends his lawyer to his house to seize all of his assets because Carter is liable as publisher. In actuality, in the eyes of the law, it's the driver's own damn fault, and can't sue anyone for his accident.
- In Batman: The Animated Series Poison Ivy was once disallowed from going to jail simply because she was apprehended by Batman, not a cop. Even if that were to apply in that particular case in that particular universe, there's all the other times she's escaped prison for all the other crimes she's committed (and she's not always caught after she commits a crime, even though gathered evidence implicates her.) Incidentally, in some older stories, Batman has the same legal standing as a police officer, albeit one in tights and a cape.
- Older Than Feudalism: The Roman Republic had a very detailed legal system, but unfortunately many of the lictors, assessors and praetors were so corrupt or hungry for patronage that the system could often be bent. Thus, Roman trials often were the thrilling Xanatos Speed Chess portrayed by Hollywood. The famous trial of Gaius Licinius Verres by Marcus Tullius Cicero is a brilliant example:
- To begin with, the people of Sicily moved to have Verres tried for extortion (his tyrannical misrule of Sicily was notorious). Verres, putting his stolen money to good use, contracted Quintus Hortensius Hortalus to represent him, widely known as the finest lawyer in Rome. The citizens, feeling rather apprehensive about this, spoke to an unorthodox but rising star of the Roman bar, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
- Verres and Hortensius used all sorts of procedural tricks in order to delay the trial. These delaying tactics gave Cicero only nine days (nowhere near enough time) until the trial would be adjourned for the upcoming holidays and games of Pompey the Great. After that, the current judge, the honest Marcus Acilius Glabrio, would be replaced by an ally of Hortensius', who would be sure to throw the case out. Furthermore, Hortensius and Verres had the support of the optimates, the patrician wing of the Senate. Just to make doubly sure, they also bribed the entire jury to find in Verres' favor.
- However, Cicero was also capable of using this trope to his advantage. He journeyed to Sicily, and with the help of a mob of angry Sicilians, totally illegally stole and copied all of Verres' records. He used his own money to bring over a hundred witnesses, and, on the day of the trial, brought every single one of them into the courtroom (again, illegally) to intimidate the patrician jury and impress the praetor. Before the trial began, he had them go into the winesinks and bathhouses of Rome and spread stories of Verres's sliminess before the plebeians.
- It was the form in those days to make incredibly lengthy opening and closing speeches. Hortensius was infamous for using the "Asiatic style", a long thrilling Large Ham performance lasting several days, complete with florid hand gestures and Manly Tears. Cicero would be expected to do the same in his opening speech, thus using up a large chunk of his available time. Thus, Verres and Hortensius had pulled off a Xanatos Gambit: either Cicero tried to fight the case, ran out of time and humiliated himself, or bowed out and let Verres off. Fortunately, Cicero was better at the whole intrigue game. He took a third option: he made no speech at all.
- Cicero, again bending the rules, simply presented his case without any introduction. He ruthlessly cross-examined Verres, who, not the sharpest tool in the box, ended up incriminating himself. Cicero's legal beat-down was so severe that at one point the plebeians stormed the courtroom in fury, and the bribed jury was so shamed by this and so appalled by Verres' corruption that Verres was forced to flee to Gaul before the trial had even ended. Tropes Are Not Bad indeed.