Subtrope of Hollywood Law. You've been arrested. You might be entirely innocent, you might be guilty as hell, but there are certain things you can count on. Someone will be Reading Your Rights, perhaps with some modifications for the purposes of humour. You'll get cuffed, taken down to the station and questioned. And you have the right to one phone call, no more, no less; even if the call doesn't go through due to some technical glitch (or is interrupted by a Corrupt Hick or the like), you don't get a second call.
You're expected to use this to call your lawyer, or your mother, or your sister, or whatever, and if you're in a drama, you probably will. If you're in a comedy, and the arrest was for harassing someone over the phone, you'll most likely ring them. If the arrest was for something else, you'll likely just order a pizza. If you're The Joker, everybody else better take cover.
Naturally, Real Life is not like this. You are not entitled to a phone call, although police are often perfectly happy to give them because people often incriminate themselves over the phone. In most jurisdictions, phone calls are privileges. The police can let you make many (if you're nice and cooperative) all the way down to none (if you're being a jerk). However, you do have the right to an attorney at any time. So if you can't get a hold of anyone on the phone, it's not like you'll just have to wait until someone on the outside notices you're missing. That said, if you are in a situation where you think you may end up in police custody (especially if possibly facing Police Brutality), it's a good idea to write down numbers for your attorney(s) and/or an outside contact, possibly in code if need be, in permanent ink on an area of your body that is visible to you such as the top of your foot or inside of your calf or arm - under stress or after a beating or tasing, your memory may not work well and you most definitely won't be given your mobile phone to use your contacts list.
If you're looking for the webcomic of the same name, click here.
open/close all folders
In one MAD strip, a man is arrested for making an obscene phone call, and uses his phone call to make another obscene phone call.
Jem fanfic "Hard Luck Story" featured the Misfits in jail after the events of KJEM. Each Misfit had one phone call. Pizzazz said she'd use hers to call a judge who was her godfather in hopes he'd pull some strings. She asked Jetta to call Eric Raymond and tell him to go to hell and then ask him to help. She asked Stormer to call Pizzazz's Dad because Stormer was the Misfit he liked the best. Pizzazz didn't believe Roxy would be of any help but asked her to call Clash anyway. Stormer wanted to use her phone call on her brother Craig instead of Pizzazz father so it was Roxy who phoned Gabor Manor.
The Dark Knight: In accordance with procedure as stated above, the Joker is not given his phone call. He goes to some lengths to get it...
... Which he uses to escape from Jail (by calling a cell phone implanted within one of his gang members, detonating a bomb connected to it and destroying a large portion of the prison).
RoboCop (1987): Clarence Boddicker is dragged, bloodied, into the police station by Robo. Having been introduced as a cop killer, he's given a hard stare by all the cops. In response, he contemptuously spits blood onto the countertop and says "Just give me my fucking phone call.", with the clear (and correct) implication that he'll be on the street again in minutes.
Ramon gets one in Hackers. As fits his phone phreak persona, he waits until the guard leaves, calls an operator, and gets her to connect him to a completely different number than the one that was originally dialed for him.
To clarify, he is left with a pulse dialing phone, after the guard dials the number and locks the dialing pad. Ramon quickly presses the switch hook ten times to dial 0 to get the operator. This works on any wired phone, as pulse dialing is essentially rapidly interrupting the circuit, with the number of pulses corresponding to the digit dialed.
Hannibal Lektor pulls a similar stunt in Manhunter when he's given a phone to call his lawyer — he instead rewires the phone (it has no dial) so he can make another call to find out where the protagonist lives.
Bernard And The Genie has a variant where Bernard is arrested, and rather than calling a lawyer, he tries to call his genie friend Josephus, since he can hopefully fix things with his magic. Unfortunately Josephus has been trapped in a bottle for two millennia and doesn't know how phones work; first he doesn't notice the phone, then he watches it in fear, and when he finally realizes it stops making noise if you lift and drop the receiver, he starts doing that instead. (Bernard is allowed to make calls until he actually reaches someone, apparently.) Meanwhile the police think that the whole thing is an elaborate code designed to stop them from listening in.
In Double Take, Darrel Chase is arrested in Mexico for the murder of the local governor, after stealing the identity of Freddie Tiffany (who was framed by the Big Bad). When brought before the local police chief, who offers him a cigar and a drink (arresting such a high profile criminal will mean promotions for the entire precinct). Darrel then tells the chief that he wants a phone call. His reply is a burst of laughter from the Mexican cops, who remind him that he's not in America and doesn't get a phone call. They even ask him (in a sarcastic manner) if he would like Johnnie Cochran for a lawyer, implying that he doesn't get a lawyer either. Of course, it's entirely possible that the Mexican cops aren't familiar with American laws and get their information from the same place the public does — TV.
Averted in Candyman. After Helen is arrested by the police and informed of her Miranda rights, she asks for a phone call and tries to contact her husband, but it's never stated that it's the only one she'll get.
The main character in A Pure Formality (1994) makes a huge fuzz about being denied his phone call.
The Partridge Family: Reuben is arrested, his "one phone call" is to the Partridges but the only one in is Tracey, who's busy watching cartoons. She hangs up on him. "Does that have to count? She's only eight!"
Matlock was arrested once and got two phone calls (although depending on how you look at it, it could have been considered only one). He called information to get the number of a lawyer friend of his (Matlock was out of town at the time), then called that lawyer but got an answering machine so he left a message. He was about to make his third call but the officer watching him said "that's your limit" or words to that effect.
The Dick Van Dyke Show: Rob gets arrested, he knows his wife is out so he calls his next door neighbor, where he gets their babysitter. He gives her the message and she puts a note on the Petrie door: "Your husband is in jail."
Barney Miller: After being arrested for making obscene phone calls a man used his one phone call to make one last obscene call to the policewoman who arrested him.
The pilot episode of the original Knight Rider showed Michael making his one phone call after being arrested for a bar fight. Cue the sheriff (who is on the take to theBig Bads) cutting him off mid-call.
Cited on Soap: when Burt is abducted by Aliens as they put him in his cell he claims that he gets one phone call.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Will and Carlton were arrested. Will used his call to phone Geoffrey, who was so upset about having his day off itnerrupted he hung on Will before listening. Carlton called his Dad but he and his friends were so entertained by a game on TV they didn't listen. Will and Carlton got their attention by making a deal with the authorities: they'd confess if they got to do it during a live broadcast interrupting the game transmission.
In Misfits, Nathan gets arrested for cheating at a casino. He uses his one phone call to call Simon for help, but Rudy answers the phone. When Nathan asks for "Barry" (his nickname for Simon), Rudy says he doesn't know anybody named Barry and hangs up on him.
The Ray Stevens song "It's Me Again, Margaret" is about an obscene phone caller who keeps calling the title character until he gets arrested. He uses his phone call to call her one last time before he's jailed.
In a Dilbert comic, this trope is applied to the pound as part of the Pounds Are Animal Prisons trope. Dogbert used his phone call to hire a wrecking company to destroy the building.
In one Blondie Sunday strip, Dagwood has tickets to a sporting event, but everyone he tries to invite is going somewhere else. He tries to sell his extra ticket and gets arrested for ticket scalping. The judge gives him one phone call, but he doesn't take it. No one was home.
Lenny Henry did a routine about being arrested by the police and told he was allowed one phone call. "So I phoned my Uncle in Jamaica 'cos I haven't spoken to him in years"
In Max Payne 2, Max is having a nightmare where he's being interrogated by his fellow officers to confess to the murder of his wife and daughter. His response: "Do I get my phone call?"
When Dwayne is speaking with two of the police officers investigating the GPF fire in General Protection Fault, and they are starting to imply that he caused it for insurance, he tells them that he shouldn't answer any more questions without speaking to his lawyer. One of them then takes out a pair of handcuffs and says that Dwayne will "one phone call to reach him," indicating that he's under arrest.
Subverted by The Simpsons. In the episode "Homer at the Bat," the Springfield Police Department arrest Steve Sax for every unsolved crime that ever took place where he lives in New York City. When he asks the cops about the one phone call, Lou the Cop quips, "You watch too many movies."
The Replacements: Buzz found Riley's cell phone and tricked Conrad into replacing people thinking it was Riley's request. When a cop tried to arrest Buzz for vandalism, Buzz claimed his right to make a phone call and used it to have the cop replaced.
In the Wish Kid episode "Mom, Dad, You're Fired", Nick was arrested and tried to ask for a phone call. It was at first denied under the claim it was only for adults but he eventually convinced the cops to let him use it. He used it to ask for Daryl's help.
One episode of Hurricanes had three Hurricanes being mistaken for fugitives. While in jail, they were allowed one phone call, which they used to contact their home stadium. Topper, the team's pet monkey, answered the phone call, ruining it, and the Hurricanes were denied another chance, meaning that, since they were arrested together, it was one phone call for the group rather than one for each prisoner.
In Kangaroo Jack: G'Day U.S.A.!, Charlie and Louis were arrested. Louis used his phone call to call for Charlie.
In The Fairly Oddparents episode "The Big Problem", of the Oh Yeah! Cartoons era, Timmy Turner wished to be an adult. He eventually got himself arrested and used his phone call to ask for his parents' help but they wouldn't believe it was him, because they thought Vicky took him to school.
At the end of the Justice League two-parter "Tabula Rasa," Lex Luthor calls his former assistant and current head of LexCorp from prison. She hangs up on him.
Lilo:[Behind bars at Kokaua Town's jail]I know my rights!I demand a lawyer! Officer Kaihiko: Lilo, you're not under arrest. Come out of there before someone sees you. Lilo: Not until I get my one phone call. Officer Kaihiko: I already called Nani. She's busy working, and she'll be here as soon as she can.
The Houseof Mouse short "Big House Mickey" has Mickey being falsely accused of theft and is told to make a call. He calls Goofy to help break him out.
One episode of Gravedale High involves a court case between Max and an old woman who claims he crashed into her car. After the judge rules in favor of the woman, the class protests until all of them (except Reggie and Frankentyke) are thrown in jail for contempt of court. Max asks for his one phone call only to find out that J.P. Ghastly already used them all to sell his stocks.
Subverted on an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alvin tries to get a private audience with the Russian ambassador, but his efforts get him, his brothers, and Dave thrown in jail. Dave asks for his one phone call only to be told they don't apply in espionage cases.
Averted, as stated above, because assuming you've been given access to legal counsel, the phone call is at the discretion of the custodians.
That said, in the US if you request a lawyer they cannot question you again until you speak to one, and you generally have the right to call your lawyer (or people who might reasonably know how to contact your lawyer for you).
Averted in Nevada, at least, where you have the right to make a "reasonable number of completed telephone calls" and within 3 hours of arrest. And the minimum is actually two phone calls, one to a friend or bail agent, and one to an attorney (unless they happen to be the same person). (NRS 171.153)
There's a Text From Last Night about someone who used his phone call to order pizza for the station and was given a ride home in a squad car as a reward. Probably fictitious, but still funny.
This is sometimes invoked in a scam involving call forwarding.