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Strong Bad: This is a sub-poe-eena! I summons Exhibit 4-B to my chambers!
Homestar Runner: Sustained! [hits self in face with gavel]

This is a listing of liberties taken with how law is presented.

Frequently an Acceptable Break From Reality in that real litigation takes months, not minutes, and almost none of it happens in court. But watching lawyers read mountains of documents and write briefs isn't something anyone really wants to do. Lawyers don't, because if you're going to watch someone do legal work you may as well do it yourself (and get paid), and laypeople audiences don't because it's boring as hell. So while most depictions of legal procedures outside of literature have very little to do with the way law is actually practiced, most people are okay with this, because real legal procedures tend to be No Fun At All.


Note that laws vary across different countries and jurisdictions. What may be therefore seen as an example of this by people from one region may actually be valid legal procedure in another, and vice versa. (This can also be noted for historical works — most legal systems have been fine-tuned over centuries; go back 200 years and chances are court procedures are comparatively sloppy.) Also note that as with all Acceptable Breaks from Reality, this can get out of hand, particularly when it's the substance of the law, not the procedure, that the creators are screwing up.

NOTE: This should not be listed on a work's page as a trope.



  • Abomination Accusation Attack: Making these is a great way to find yourself receiving a cease-and-desist from the other party's attorney, and if you don't back off or they can demonstrate that they suffered economic harm as the result of inflammatory falsehoods, you have a good shot at finding yourself on the wrong end of a defamation suit.
  • Ambulance Chaser: In some jurisdictions (such as Europe), being one of these is illegal. Even places where it's legal still take a very dim view of this. Taking a worthless case just to shake someone down with a scary letter and make them panic-settle is, at the very least, going to net you an envelope in the mail with a none-too-polite letter from their attorney. Making a habit of this will earn you an entry on your public record and/or the disciplinary action section of the state legal circular, up to being disbarred if the courts simply get tired of dealing with you. The same goes for representing clients in an overly aggressive, belligerent, and uncivil manner; taking a no-holds-barred, scorched-earth approach to representation is a great way to lose cases, get sued for malpractice, and, again, find yourself on the wrong end of a smackdown from a pissed-off judge or state bar association.
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  • Amoral Attorney: Literally true, but by the wrong definition of the word "amoral". Attorneys are supposed to be impartial and give all clients the best representation that they can possibly provide. If they absolutely cannot represent a client in good faith, they have an ethical and legal obligation to relieve themselves of their duty; the level of moral bankruptcy that is often seen in fiction would have gotten most attorneys suspended or disbarred, and probably arrested, a long time ago. A criminal defense attorney will tell you that providing the best possible representation to the worst people serves a twofold purpose: it keeps the police and prosecution honest and forces them to do things by the book, and it eliminates the possibility of any sort of successful appeal from the defendant.
  • Bail Equals Freedom: Bail is treated as an easy way to skip a future trial and possible sentencing. In real life, it's a monetary guarantee that the accused will show up for trial and "jumping bail" is a crime in itself, and flight risks or those who pose a clear and present threat to the community will generally not be granted bail.
  • Beware of Vicious Dog: In real life, a poorly-behaved dog that regularly causes problems for neighbors (be it aggressive, prone to chasing or escaping with no effort by the owner to immediately catch it, prone to leaving messes in or tearing up the property of others, or simply allowed to bark for lengthy periods of time) can usually cause the owner to be fined and/or ordered to control or relinquish the dog, as well as being opened up to civil liability for any injuries or property damage caused by the dog.
  • Bouncer: A necessity for any establishment serving alcohol in real life, but carrying out your duties by being a rude, violent jerk will get you fired from basically any place you'd want to work at. Being aggressive or needlessly violent (which is what you're supposed to not be) will get you fired swiftly and likely sued or arrested, while being a dick to people will also get you fired when word gets out to your coworkers that you piss off customers and make bad situations worse every time you open your mouth. While you are expected to be able to be able to handle yourself when things go south, your verbal conflict mitigation and resolution skills are prioritized above all else. As anyone who has worked in nightlife can tell you, there are plenty of thugs and bullies behind the velvet rope, but your job is to prevent or stop trouble and help people, not look intimidating and beat up troublemakers, and the dudes who go into the job expecting to kick some ass are the dudes who quickly find themselves unable to find work anywhere that isn't disreputable or dysfunctional.
  • Chalk Outline: Might have been occasionally used in the distant past before cameras, but not done at all anymore thanks to more advanced technology.
  • Chewbacca Defense: Creative or unorthodox tactics have a place in law. Frivolous and/or sophistic ones do not. A good judge will tell an attorney who is using one to quit wasting the court's time.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Just because you marry someone from another country doesn't mean you automatically become a citizen of that country, and immigration authorities are quite wise to the usual green card/sham marriage tricks.note 
  • Conviction by Contradiction: While a legal case has to hold together logically to some extent, "logic dictates that this must be what happened" is not sufficient for a conviction in a criminal case. In a civil case, the principle of res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) applies, and it basically amounts to "we can't conclusively prove just how this occurred, but there is simply no explanation that does not open the defendant up to liability" (e.g., a section of pallet racking collapses and crushes an employee; whatever the reason may be, properly maintained and loaded pallet racks are not supposed to suddenly collapse on people). Furthermore, an investigation that seems may be running solely on the fact someone used the wrong grammar on his statement as "the clue" (to give an example, but equally flimsy things have been used in fiction) would probably be dismissed as harassment.
  • Conviction by Counterfactual Clue: A defendant's statement, testimony, or alibi, or a witness's testimony is not automatically and completely discredited just because it contains one item that isn't absolutely true. Trials in some places happen months or even years after the fact, depending on the crime; in that time, details can very easily become fuzzy in a person's memory.
  • Cops Need the Vigilante: Law enforcement officers and agencies cannot hire or use someone else to circumvent their own rules. There are laws for that sort of loophole, like entrapment.
  • Courtroom Antic: Many of these common in fiction would result in the lawyer being warned, and possibly removed from the case or punished for contempt of court. Major antics could be cause for the verdict to be overturned on appeal (See "Off on a Technicality"), or could cause the judge to declare a mistrial, and a consistently ill-behaved lawyer would risk disbarment. While the courts tend to be a little more lenient with pro se litigants, being disruptive, verbally abusive, or aggressive will still result in the court telling you to knock it off, and habitual bad behavior in the courtroom, when combined with a lengthy, well-established track record of abusive pro se litigation and Loophole Abuse to evade consequences, presents a strong case for being declared a vexatious litigant. Lastly, when a client is about to take the stand to say or do something phenomenally stupid that their attorney could not talk them out of, the attorney will preface it with "my client would like to ______", which is commonly understood to be code for "my client is a gigantic fucking idiot, this was most certainly not my idea, and they still insisted on doing this even after I told them that it was a terrible idea, so whatever comes out of their mouth is not my fault".
  • Crime of Self-Defense: What is and is not "self-defense" is complicated and thorny legal ground, and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Generally speaking, self-defense claims require that the threat instigated the event or massively escalated it, you weren't able to get away, you only used the amount of force necessary to remove the threat, and immediately stopped once the threat was gone. And even that only might work. Telling the nice police officer "But it was self-defense!" won't keep you out of courtnote , and it is most certainly not a defense to things like Disproportionate Retribution.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: Real-life abuses of it definitely occur, but any nation that values its relationship with the host country will deal with it. International incidents do not exactly foster goodwill, especially serious criminal offenses. Should the sending country not deal with it, the host can always make the offender "Persona Non Grata" (or, in layman's terms, "you've more than worn out your welcome, get out and don't come back"), which is not great for international relations, but neither is inaction on the sender's part. Matters can be complicated in cases where the offender has committed an offense that is treated far more harshly in the sending country.
  • Disneyland Dad: Non-custodial parents deliberately spoiling their kids, letting them do whatever they want when they visit, or not following through on restrictions or punishments that the custodial parent had instituted just to undermine the custodial parent falls under the mantle of "parental alienation", and judges are very wise to it and very quick to tell you to knock it off and/or find you in contempt if it's particularly egregious or you keep doing it after being called out.
  • Disregard That Statement: There are types of questions an attorney simply may not ask a witness in court. There are types of statements a trial attorney may not make in court. Asking such questions or making such statements deliberately, then backing down from it with "Disregard that" or "Withdrawn" is a risky tactic for a trial lawyer. The courts do have the power to sanction a lawyer who does this excessively or blatantly, not to mention the risk of creating something appeal-worthy. As a rule, the sort of things that gets said in fiction would get most lawyers in a world of hurt.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Divorce has a way of bringing out the absolute worst in people, but the scorched-earth behavior that is often seen in fiction can and will lead to sanctions against both the offending party and their attorney. Your attorney's job is to advocate for your interests financially, not help you wage war on your ex-spouse. And obviously any party willing to offer or accept the idea that Murder Is the Best Solution will end up in jail, too.
  • Eagleland Osmosis: People in every country have seen a lot of American Law Procedurals, and often assume the law works similarly when making one set in their own country. Blame Hollywood.
  • Emancipated Child: Truth in television, though less common and less easy than TV would have you believe. There has to be evidence that the parents are unfit to take care of them, that there are no relatives willing or able to act as legal guardians, that they are sufficiently mature and capable of making good decisions, and that the child can reasonably support themselves (meaning that they can demonstrate that they are currently financially self-sufficient and will continue to be, as well as being unlikely to apply for welfare or resort to illegal sources of income.) They will not be granted custody of younger siblings at the same time, either, unless circumstances are well and truly bizarre; if both parents are unfit, there are no willing, able, or fit relatives who could step up, and the petitioner is able to sufficiently care for the siblings and the court feels that it would be in their mutual best interest, they may grant it, but it's a high threshold.
  • Empty Cop Threat: They may try it. But they do so knowing it's an empty threat.
  • Enfante Terrible: In real life, out-of-control children who consistently resist all attempts at parental direction, habitually run away and/or are truant, and are involved in wantonly self-destructive, violent, or criminal behavior can be subject to a child in need of supervision (CHINS) petition (nomenclature may differ depending on the state), which gets family services involved and typically starts with family counseling and community-based care, though it may escalate to the courts if the child and/or family is uncooperative or the child is such a danger to themselves or others that drastic action needs to be taken as soon as possible.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: In the past, it was used (hence references to "rubber hoses" or "the third degree" or vague threats by cops to "take you down to the station and see how tough you are" in many Hard Boiled Detective novels.) Now, even suggesting it is a no-go.
  • Failed Execution, No Sentence: There used to be a time when people surviving an execution (or a set amount of execution attempts, such as being hanged three times) were given a full pardon, being seen as God's will. More recently (talking at least a hundred-plus years or so), this was started to be seen as a no-no (this is why any execution sentencing will have the judge saying that the method will be applied "until (the prisoner is) dead"). Of course, Fiction Isn't Fair and not only does this code lives on, but sometimes will be presented in a sillier fashion.
  • Fell Off the Back of a Truck: Truth in Television in terms of how the law treats it; while "I didn't know it was stolen" is often a perfectly valid defense to receipt of stolen property charges, the law also assumes that most reasonable people would raise an eyebrow at suspicious deals. If you had reason to believe that something was stolen, and fail to take reasonable measures to investigate, you absolutely can be successfully prosecuted. The standard generally boils down to just how suspicious it was; if it was being sold for fair market value under normal circumstances, you have a valid defense, but if it was being sold for well below market value under extremely questionable circumstances, you should have known better.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: At best, it's stupid. At worst, it's evidence-tampering. And it's not up to the cop investigating the scene to figure out what a mysterious substance is, anyway. That's what the crime lab is for.
  • A Fool for a Client: In real life, representing oneself pro se is generally a really bad idea, but there is little truth to the notion that all pro se litigants are either crazy or have no case. Most are just people of limited means trying to resolve a problem to the best of their ability. Crazies and bullies exist, but they do not represent the majority of pro se litigants. Also, courts recognize that a good pro se litigant is trying to resolve their issue, and generally work with them or take it easy on them. Criminal defense is rather different, however. While misdemeanors are regularly handled pro se unless there is a procedural disputenote , in many jurisdictions in the US, pro se defense for a felony requires the judge to explicitly allow the defendant to go without legal counsel, before proceedings commence, and the rules for permitting it grow ever more strict as the severity of the crime increases (this is counter-balanced by the Miranda rule requiring the state to provide a public defender if the defendant cannot afford private counsel). It is nearly impossible to get a judge to permit a pro se defense in a murder or rape case. Furthermore, the Bar Association in most states outright prohibits a current or former lawyer from defending themselves in such a case, and will penalize (or even disbar) a standing officer of the court for even requesting it.
  • Freudian Excuse: In fiction, defense attorneys have a pretty good track record with getting clients off incredibly light or getting them off completely by using a deeply painful or abusive childhood or a generally terrible life as a defense for why they did what they did. In real life, courts don't really care about how shitty your childhood was or how much your life sucks for the most part, they just care about what you are accused of doing. If it does come up, it's usually during sentencing, though it can also affect flimsier charges (usually by invalidating the intent portion) and may also be a factor in competence evaluations and/or insanity pleas, as people who have been so warped by trauma as to become fundamentally divorced from reality may present a compelling case for an insanity plea or incompetence finding.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: Lawyers are required by law to make a reasonable inquiry into the factual and legal merit of every case before filing, in order to reasonably ensure that it is legitimate; if they fail to do so, they can face sanctions. In Real Life, most frivolous suits are simply thrown out of court. Furthermore, threatening someone with a worthless lawsuit just to intimidate them is likely to result in a letter from their attorney that can be loosely translated as "stop wasting my time," or setting up a Morton's Fork where the lawyer says "I know you have no case, so either drop the lawsuit or get destroyed in court." Repeatedly filing these as a pro se litigant is also a great way to be declared a vexatious litigant, which doesn't bar you from filing so much as it makes it incredibly difficult and expensive to do so as a way of curbing a lengthy, well-established pattern of abuse.
  • Gold Digger: This is what prenuptial agreements are for. While they generally aren't 100% foolproof, a good prenup will keep one of these from hollowing you out in a divorce. As for wills, one of these convincing a testator to leave everything to them presents a slam-dunk case for undue influence come probate.
  • Grade-School C.E.O.: Minors (especially those under the age of 12) in most developed nations cannot sign contracts or hold employment. When a parent dies, leaving control of major assets to their child or children, a Trust or Conservatorship will be created by the court to manage the assets and look after the best interest of the child, if the parent didn't create one in their will.
  • Hero Insurance: In Real Life, such things as "Good Samaritan" Laws exist to help people prevent from getting sued if they have to help with an emergency — but only within reason. Not getting sued if you hurt someone while applying the Heimlich Maneuver is "within reason". Demolishing five city blocks while pursuing a criminal as a vigilante is not. And also needs be said — Good Samaritan Laws don't force you to help.
  • High-Altitude Interrogation: Like other types of Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique / Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, information obtained through them would be seen as illegally acquired (and unreliable because it was given under torture) and a serious backfire on the career of anybody who so much as proposes it would ensue.
  • Hilarity Sues: Seriously depends on the application and the jurisdiction. There are times when (seen from the outside in) it would be perfectly legal to apply them (yet Fiction Isn't Fair), but other times it falls under the purview of Frivolous Lawsuit and all the issues it implies (explained above).
  • Hollywood Law: The multiple methods through which Hollywood has perverted law in order to squeeze a little bit more drama out of a law and order story is just impossible to count. Suffice to say, it's easier to point out when is law being showcased correctly.
  • Improvised Weapon: If an everyday item or terrain feature (such as a parking block) can reliably kill or cripple someone, it can be considered a deadly weapon, and certain everyday items that are commonly used as weapons under specific circumstances (e.g., a baseball bat, golf club, or crowbar in the trunk of a car) will be considered weapons by the court.
  • Inheritance Murder: Slayer clauses automatically prevent beneficiaries from inheriting anything if they kill the testator.
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: Considering the fact that we have not made actual extraterrestrial contact, it is impossible to determine how this trope would actually work out in Real Life—and yet, long story short, the one court case known that could be considered precedent for the ruling of "if you're an extraterrestrial, you have no rights" is very visibly a judge's use of Laser-Guided Karma on a Frivolous Lawsuit's plaintiff. Several jurisdictions (such as Scotland) apply murder under a broad sense of "willful destruction of life", and there are 70 nations that currently have laws forbidding human cloning — should it ever become possible. It highly unlikely, then, that in practice intelligent aliens similar to us would be barred legal rights if the issue ever actually arose.
  • Insanity Defense: In real life, if an insanity defense works, the defendant doesn't walk out of court a free person. They walk out of court in the company of a couple of burly orderlies from a mental institution. Whether they ever walk out of there a free person depends on the psychiatrists and psychologists. Their stay can very well be longer than what their prison sentence would have been. Also, an insanity defense is only used in less than 1% of US criminal trials, and is successful ~25% of the time. That's less than one quarter of one one-hundredth of criminal cases that it works. If it seems like it happens more often, that's because it's so rare and risky that it garners more attention when someone attempts it. Note that this has nothing to do with legal competence; being adjudicated incompetent is an entirely different matter, though it often follows that someone who is legally incompetent is likely also criminally incompetent.
    • Likewise, being judged legally incompetent to stand trial is not the same as being not guilty by reason of insanity. For starters, one doesn't have to be "insane"note  to be found incompetent to stand trial. Moreover, a person declared incompetent doesn't get out of standing trial: they are removed to a psychiatric facility and rehabilitated (and often medicated) to the minimum of competency, at which point the trial continues. This can happen multiple times during the course of a trial. If a person decompensates (i.e., reverts to being incompetent) during the course of a trial, the trial is suspended and the person returned to a hospital until they can continue. In most jurisdictions, the standards of legal competency are astonishingly low, often involving simply being able to identify one's lawyer, knowing which person in the courtroom is the judge, and understanding what will happen if one is found guilty...information that most people—including children, persons with advanced dementia, people suffering from psychosis, and the intellectually challenged—have absorbed simply through watching television. In short: you're not getting out of this trial, and if you somehow do, you probably were not able to function on a daily basis without extensive aid to begin with.
  • Insurance Fraud and Real Estate Scam: They happen, but real-life insurance and fair-housing investigators are much wiser to the usual tricks than fictional ones tend to be.
  • The incidence, and success, of such cases often varies wildly by jurisdiction, especially in what used to called the Second and Third World nations - for example, Flopsy and other vehicular scams became a serious problem in the Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which led to the widespread adoption of dashcams. Note, however, that the crux of most such scams is to get the victim to make an immediate payoff in order to avoid involving the troubled, underfunded, and often corrupt police and court systems in the areas hardest hit by post-Cold War economic downturns. This seems to have eased since 2010 or so, but at the same time it has grown more common in other countries such as Vietnam, Brazil, and the Philippines as their economies rapidly change.
  • Arranging one's suicide to look like murder or an accident in order to provide one's beneficiaries with a hefty insurance payout is, uh, less necessary than fiction would make it seem. It is a common misconception that insurance companies never pay out in the case of suicide—a misconception that most insurers don't put a lot of effort into correcting, for obvious reasons. However, most term-life policies have a suicide clause of anywhere from two to five years in order to prevent people from taking out enormous policies and killing themselves immediately afterwards, both as a method of preventing fraud and as a suicide deterrent. After the clause expires, insurers are legally required to pay the full policy amount even if the insured person is known to have committed suicide. Obviously, suicide is never recommended, even for the purpose of defrauding a financial institution.
  • Back in the day, insurance fraud was much simpler: take out a policy on any random item (or person) whether or not it was yours, then destroy the item (or person) and collect. Many serial killers (such as Belle Gunness and H.H. Holmes) began their murderous careers in just this way. For this very reason, all insurance companies now require proof of insurable interest—that is, reasonable proof that you have a legitimate interest in the continued existence of this object (your house) or person (your spouse) and would suffer a genuine loss if anything should happen to them (i.e. your house burns down and you have nowhere else to live; the loss of your spouse significantly impacts your life and/or income). Likewise for this reason, one must be able to prove ownership of the insured item, or have the insured person verify that they are aware that you have taken out a policy on their behalf. Often they have to verify this while in the presence of an insurance agent so that there can be no forged signatures or having one's spouse sign a policy while believing it's something else. In short: the insurance companies are on to all those would-be Bluebeards and black widows and have made it increasingly difficult to insure someone without their knowledge or consent. While modern crime writers should bear this in mind, the lax laws of the past might still allow historical writers to get away with (fictional) murder depending on their time period.
    • There's one major exception to the above: a parent is legally able to take out a policy on their underage child without the child's knowledge or consent. In fiction, this is portrayed as highly remarkable and a sure sign of Offing the Offspring, particularly when a parent insures an infant. In real life, it's actually very common to insure babies, for a lot of practical, non-murderous reasons. Ironically, the most common reason is in case the child does die young, in order to cover the cost of an unanticipated funeral. But young, healthy children are very cheap to insure, and insuring them early may allow them to maintain lower premiums even after they're grown. Moreover, by the time child reaches adulthood, the policy may have "paid up," allowing the child to cash it in or maintain it without paying further premiums. Whatever the motive, taking out insurance on a child doesn't raise any automatic red flags with either insurers or law enforcement.
  • Interrogation by Vandalism: Damage to property (or threatening to) is illegal anyway, let alone when used to get information.
  • In Vino Veritas: Truth in Television, but not as much as fiction would have you believe. Still, ask a detective who has been around for long enough and odds are decent that they will remember at least one case that was cold or on its way to becoming cold that wound up being rejuvenated by a drunken slip of the tongue.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Varies depending on jurisdiction. Varies wildly. In Western countries, torturing a suspect is generally illegal and any information thereby obtained is inadmissible in court, which is codified in the United States under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution (which does not mean it never happens, only that it generally means the case is going to get thrown out if discovered).
  • Jail Bait: The age of consent varies considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and many locales have "Romeo and Juliet" laws to keep teens from getting charged with statutory rape, but SoCalization leads to many writers assuming it's 18 everywhere.
    • The Jail Bait Wait: See above, but this typically presents a good case for grooming, which is extremely illegal and very likely to gain you an entry on a sex offender registry.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Courts frankly don't give a shit about how much your victim deserved what was coming to them, and impersonal malice as opposed to deliberately targeting bad people may honestly be more in your favor, as it presents a less compelling case for premeditation. Ask anyone who has worked in criminal justice for any meaningful amount of time and they will tell you that a significant amount of violent crime victims are just as bad as the people who victimized them, and they'll also tell you that no, it usually doesn't make a meaningful difference.
  • Leonine Contract: Varies wildly by jurisdiction, but in general contracts that have flat-out inhumane terms and conditions (such as forcing the signer to become a literal life-long slave of whoever owns the document) are considered unenforceable or at least severely looked down on by the law.
  • Loophole Abuse: Courts do indeed hate that one weird trick, but odds are good that a). someone tried it or something similar before and you're not as clever as you think you are, and b). the loophole was closed via caselaw or, barring that, an amendment to the relevant statutory law. Furthermore, trying to exploit loopholes to get away with bad behavior or evade consequences is a great way to piss off the court and ensure that they come down on you even harder (if they can) or go out of their way to get you for whatever they can (if they can't get you for that specific thing).
  • Made Out to Be a Jerkass: A very risky move on a Real Life court of law. Even the biggest jerk in the galaxy can have an actual legal grievance, so trying to redirect the blame to make the plaintiff look like an asshole that deserves whatever crime he was a victim of just makes the defendant look like a Manipulative Bastard—also, this is why juries are instructed and screened to try to keep bias out of the equation (although it doesn't always succeed). It can also actually be a defense in defamation cases; if the plaintiff's reputation is already so terrible that there's no more damage that can realistically be done, the "actual harm" portion of most defamation statutes may be impossible to satisfy.
  • Motive Equals Conclusive Evidence: Having a reason to commit the crime is not enough evidence to put you in jail nor for the investigators to stop looking for answers.
  • Murder Simulators: While people have been killed in the name of video games before, using the fact that a person played a violent video game (or had a history of playing them) is not enough to declare anyone mentally unfit or insane.
  • Must State If You're a Cop: Undercover officers are under no obligation to inform criminals that they're police, even when asked about it point-blank. The idea that not stating they're a cop is "entrapment" is also false; entrapment is if a police officer has you commit an illegal act that you would not have done if the cop hadn't approached you. If you were already committing a crime, the fact that you tried to do so with an undercover cop is legally irrelevant. That said, the cops are in no hurry to correct people who believe this; letting the urban legend thrive helps with their job.
  • No Adequate Punishment: A law does not need to exist to punish a specific crime. As an example: In the aftermath of World War II, some defenders were arguing that there was no law to punish the genocides of Nazi Germany. It was ruled that it was still punishable, and the Nuremberg trials were made specifically to dole it out.
  • No Badge? No Problem!: In real life, the police take a very dim view of people acting like they have legal authority when their position does not give it. In this case what varies by jurisdiction is not whether you'll get in trouble for doing it, but how deep the trouble will be. Exceptions exist (namely citizen's arrest), but those are highly situational and afford you far fewer privileges than would normally be available to law enforcement.
  • Not Proven: It's not enough for the police and prosecutors to say "well, who else could it have been?" — they have to have a sufficiently strong legal case against a specific person, built on admissible evidence and through witness testimony. In addition, in the United States, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and it must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant is guilty. In short, it's not "no one else could have done it;" it's "only this person could have done it, and here's why." Sort of subverted for civil cases, as "preponderance of the evidence" is the civil standard of proof and can generally be taken to mean "there's enough evidence to indicate that you're liable"; there can be a shadow of a doubt, but the evidence against you is strong enough that beyond maybe a few slightly contentious points, any real doubt is willful contrarianism.
  • No Warrant? No Problem!: Varies by jurisdiction, but broadly speaking it is illegal in most jurisdictions (either barging into a house to obtain evidence without a warrant or stalking a suspect for the sake of Perp Sweating). "In plain view" is the most common exception (e.g., the police pulled you over for expired tags and spotted meth-making equipment through the back window), but most exceptions are extremely circumstantial.
  • Off on a Technicality: A case being "dismissed on a technicality" almost always means that the police (during their investigation) or the prosecutor (during the trial) screwed up big-time and did something that they aren't allowed to do, or didn't do something that they are required to do. In some cases it means that the prosecutor chose the wrong charges to file. Civilly, losing a valid case due to this typically means the same thing: someone did something that they weren't supposed to do, didn't follow procedure, or acted in bad faith.
    • A commonly invoked mistake (when in United States) is that the police did not remember to read the suspect their rights upon arresting. Reciting the "Miranda Rights" or "Miranda Warning" is only necessary for custodial interrogations, but it's usually given on arrest so it isn't forgotten later. If witness testimonies and/or physical evidence is sufficient for conviction, reading the suspect their rights is not necessary. Also, in the US the penalty for failing to Mirandize a suspect is that their testimony isn't admissible in court, not that they get a literal "get out of jail free" card.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: As a general rule of thumb, in small towns you'll find "country lawyers" who do a little of everything, for typically small stakes. For cases involving large sums of money or very complex, specialized areas of law, you'll want an attorney who specializes in that area, and in fact, most small-town lawyers will "tag-team" with a specialized lawyer to take a case to court. It's just like the difference between a general-practice physician and a specialized surgeon.
  • One Phone Call: In the US, you don't have to be given "one phone call". You have to be given a reasonable opportunity to get in touch with legal counsel.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: If you've been charged with anything with consequences above a ticket, call your lawyer. You are always entitled to legal counsel, whether you have committed the crime you are accused of or not. Using that right does not make you look guilty by default, and having a lawyer present can protect you from a wide range of things.
  • On One Condition: Can be Truth in Television up to a point, but particularly outlandish conditions and/or those that restrict the beneficiary from exercising a fundamental right or are otherwise against public policy are likely to be found invalid.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Courts hate vigilantes and revenge stories and they're not going to give you a break just because your victim really had it coming. At best, it may serve as a mitigating factor during sentencing depending on how good a reason you had. At worst, it will result in an even harsher sentence, especially if what you did struck beyond the pale or if the prosecution can establish that you were just looking for a good excuse to seriously harm or kill someone.
  • The Perry Mason Method: The defense does not have to find the "real" culprit — to establish reasonable doubt, all a competent defense attorney needs to do is weaken the prosecution's case to "not proven" and/or posit another theory of events.
  • Plea Bargain: The reality varies widely by jurisdiction. In the US, where it's most common, the biggest difference between fact and fiction is when it's offered; in Real Life, a plea bargain is almost never offered once the trial has begun.
  • Precrime Arrest: For the most part, the current justice systems around the world make a serious emphasis on "innocent until proven guilty" and "punishment after the crime". Attempting to capture someone before a crime has been committed (and there is no solid evidence of criminal conspiracy to support the suspicion) would be seen as wrongful arrest or even entrapment... and this is without taking into account the sci-fi angle of the Trope (which could be seen as violation of privacy, plus whichever discussion would ensue if there is a possibility, however small, for the criminal to say "Screw Destiny"...)
  • Private Detective: Truth in Television, kinda, but their jobs are usually far more mundane, especially when they need to avoid running afoul of the courts. The average private eye can expect to get a lot of process service and skip traces, divorce cases (mostly investigating suspected adultery, concealment of assets, or parental unfitness), insurance investigations (especially worker's comp and personal injury), and (if they specialize in it) due diligence for investors seeking risky investments, and while tailing someone or prowling around outside of their residences absolutely does happen (particularly in worker's comp cases; anyone who has dealt with these will tell you that the car with blacked-out windows camping out in front of someone's house is an inevitability), most of it involves creeping through public records and social media.
  • Rape and Revenge: The type of premeditated manhunts that are standard to this trope would be considered straight-up murder, especially when it's someone other than the victim themselves doing it. (See also Crime of Self-Defense).
  • Read the Fine Print: Contract law is as wildly varied and thorny as self-defense law, but as a rule of thumb you must at least to be able to read it (and although fiction depicts contracts as irrevocably binding, in reality courts sometimes decide that certain parts of a contract are unenforceable for one reason or another, with vagueness and/or being overly broad being the most common reasons.)
  • Reading Your Rights: Varies wildly by jurisdiction.
  • Rogue Juror: Specifically, the "Amateur Sleuth in the jury starts own investigation" sub-division (which has appeared in various ways including Trope Codifier "12 Angry Men"). Any attempt at doing this, be it sneaking out from wherever the jury has been sequestered or try to ask questions to a witness right in the middle of the court room) will equal getting kicked out of the jury and probably get arrested for perjury. One of the main goals of voir dire (the jury vetting process) is to make sure that people like this don't find their way onto juries; if even a hint of prejudice is detected, you're out of the running. If a runaway juror does make it on and is successful in unduly prejudicing a jury, that's a guaranteed appeal that will likely be successful.
  • Rules Lawyer: Varies wildly. Depending on the laws being cited, there is bound to be some stretching of definitions in a way that helps your case and/or hinders theirs, but there is a definite line of acceptability. It's up to a judge to decide when you've gone from "a bit of a stretch, but okay" to "blatant Chewbacca Defense", and sanctions may be possible if you have a particularly flimsy or outright frivolous case that you attempted to prop up with some particularly ridiculous semantic leaps. Words count, but they don't mean shit if the case itself has no meat, and if you are successful in basing a substantial portion of your case around the interpretation of certain laws, it was either due to an incredibly specific set of circumstances or a badly-worded statute or decision.
  • Sensitivity Training: A regular workplace comedy trope in fiction, an actual legal necessity in Real Life. Companies that are able to show that employees were told what not to do (and yet did it anyway) in a sexual harassment or hostile work environment lawsuit will be better protected than those who didn't.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Truth in Television in the past, but increasingly rare today to the point of being a Dead Horse Trope (See "Omnidisciplinary Lawyer").
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: In Real Life, they do; while their effectiveness is largely tied to budgetary limitations, they do the absolute best that they can. As a result, events that would bring their attention to a child's plight (such as Hilariously Abusive Childhood) but would be shrugged off in fiction will be dealt with.
  • Solomon Divorce: Not totally unusual in Real Life divorces (in the legal terminology, this is usually called a "split parenting situation"), however because it can be a traumatic experience for a child, the total disconnection from the other siblings that is seen in fiction is frowned upon if not forbidden by law (so such thing as visitation times or some psychological counsel are at least suggested).
  • A regular variation on this trope is that one parent gets the sole legal and physical/residential custody of the childrennote  with no visitation/parenting time for the other spouse. This one is a doozy... note 
  • Spousal Privilege: Fictional uses of this tend to be considerably broader than Real Life laws allow.
  • Stop, or I Will Shoot!: This varies from country to country and has changed over time. In the US, law enforcers are now not generally allowed to shoot at a fleeing suspect (unless the suspect is shooting at them).
  • Streisand Effect: Truth in Television, and can often play a major role in deciding whether litigation is worth it. Yes, you may have a case, yes, you'll probably prevail, and hell, you may even be in the right morally. If the circumstances of the case make it very likely that you'll kick up a shitstorm by litigating, however, a good attorney will advise you to seriously consider whether being right is worth the blow to your reputation. There are times where a favorable determination is not worth the consequences in the court of public opinion. Gag orders can sometimes curb this, but getting one that won't be thrown out the minute that their attorney contests it is quite difficult; to get a gag order to stick, the defendant generally has to have repeatedly and publicly spoken about their case in a way that is going to greatly inflame the passions of the public and impact both parties' right to a fair trial.
  • Suicide Dare: Shitty, but generally not illegal. The rare few cases where someone has successfully been convicted of murder or manslaughter for encouraging suicide have involved either prolonged, relentless campaigns of adamant encouragement (the Michelle Carter case, and even that involved a great deal of deliberation that only resulted in a conviction because of the sheer egregiousness of her conduct) or deliberately leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for an individual that they know is actively suicidal (e.g., leaving a loaded firearm or a full bottle of pills that reliably cause fatal overdoses in plain sight), and, like the former, it really has to strike beyond the pale.
  • There Is No Higher Court: Well, yes, eventually you'll get to the highest court that has jurisdiction to hear the case. Depending on the jurisdiction that could be quite a few steps.
  • Trash of the Titans: Hoarding and filth are a legitimate reason for Adult Protective Services (or similar agencies for non-US tropers) to step in, and if the building is dirty and poorly-maintained enough, most local government authorities can and will condemn it. Similarly, local authorities (namely town/city governments and HOAs) will step in if your property is badly overgrown, covered in broken appliances and inoperable vehicles, has garbage on it, or is otherwise unsightly or disgusting, as it degrades property values, attracts wild animals and provides breeding grounds for insects, and creates hazards for people stepping onto your land.
  • We All Live in America: Once again, Real Life law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The United States has created a large amount of "law" shows since the inception of film and television. We seriously recommend that you consult your local laws, otherwise you (and your show) will be mocked for Critical Research Failure at the very least.
  • Weapon for Intimidation: Very, very illegal. Threatening someone with a gun, knife, or other implement that can reliably cause lethal physical injury is usually treated just as harshly as actually attacking them with it, and in jurisdictions that issue weapons permits at the discretion of issuing authorities, you will not be granted a permit if they suspect that you just want something to scare people with. The only time that it is ever not illegal in a civilian context is if it's part of an escalation of force in response to a credible threat, i.e. you told an attacker that you had a gun and that they needed to back off, they persisted, and you pulled out the gun, pointed it at them, and repeated what you said and warned them that you would shoot rather than immediately pulling it on them.
  • Wrongful Accusation Insurance: In Real Life, there are three things wrong with this scenario:
    1. If someone has been successfully framed for a serious crime, they most likely aren't free to investigate it. They're in jail or on the run from the law.
    2. To the legal system, why you committed a crime is utterly irrelevant. Having a good reason doesn't get you any points unless, say, it gets murder knocked down to involuntary manslaughter.
    3. If you've already been convicted, even later-proven innocence is not a defense. You don't have a right to a pardon, a new trial (unless there was a procedural error) or any reduction of your sentence.note 

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

  • Comic book writer and lawyer Bob Ingersoll has written the column "The Law Is a Ass" since the 1980s. In it, he points out various legal situations that comic book writers have gotten wrong in their stories.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • ''Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In Iron Man 2, during the Senate Committee hearing, Senator Stern orders Rhodes to read a single line from his report on the Iron Man armor — clearly out of context — about Iron Man being a potential threat, then cuts him off before he could explain what he meant. Tony had every right to ask Rhodes to finish his statement. Of course, Rhodey calls out the Senator when he makes this demand.
      • More generally, Tony's ownership of a weapons suite with mounted anti-tank missiles is blatantly illegal and would get him arrested in short order. As would his vigilante activities in the first movie, including flying out to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and shooting people. His refusal to share his technology with the government would also never stand. Legally, the government doesn't even have to ask him, they can just take it and invoke Eminent Domain, then compensate him a reasonable price. Which, in Real Life, they certainly would, considering the world-changing implications of a 3 gigawatt clean reactor the size of an apple.
      • Tony's stunt of "hacking" the monitors in the hearing would also be more likely to get him into further trouble rather than having everyone in the room in awe at how awesome he is.
    • Spider-Man: Homecoming: The situation that sets up the plot of the film, Damage Control voiding Adrian Toomes' legal city contract without compensating him (followed by one of them mocking him for thinking that they would), is highly illegal. In any situation like this, the government has a legal obligation to compensate businesses for what is essentially seizure of eminent domain, and given the stakes involved, a salvage company operating on a city contract in New York City (the most contested real-estate market in the world), Toomes had more than enough to sue for a big fat check from the government.
  • In Jem and the Holograms, Jerrica is asked to sign a solo recording contract by music executive Erica Raymond. Nearly everything about the signing scene is wrong:
    • There is no lawyer present for the signing, nor a review of the contract. Jerrica simply takes a cursory look at the contact and signs without reading any of the fine print.
    • Multiple reviews of the film pointed out that there are virtually no major record label contracts that only require you to initial the first page. Nearly every contract signing, regardless of industry, requires that the signer(s) read and initial each page so that they understand what is being said.
    • Jerrica waives away any royalties or income until an unspecified point in time after her tour is completed. No mention is made by her of how she's supposed to support herself, how Erica's offer is better than any other label's or how this is legally sound.
    • Finally, Jerrica signs the document as "Jem", her stage alias. Not only is this absurd, but it isn't legally enforceable. If she chose to, Jerrica could break the contract and simply claim that the signature wasn't hers if she was taken to court.
  • In I Shot Jesse James, the outlaw Frank James is acquitted of charges in Colorado, and the jail immediately lets him go, even though they acknowledge he's wanted in other states like Kansas and Missouri. In reality, the Colorado authorities would’ve alerted the other states (telegrams were widespread by 1892, so there wouldn’t be a long delay) and kept Frank locked up until one of the states contacted them about extradition via the U.S. Marshals.
  • The Hitman's Bodyguard:
    • Massive liberties are taken to make Kincaid's testimony the only thing that can get Belorussian ex-dictator Dukhovich convicted at the Hague. A victim whose family was killed in front of him and was put in a work camp for three years has his entire testimony dismissed out of hand, with the implications that all of the other witnesses so far have had the same. Such testimony would not simply be declared "hearsay" (which, by the way, is when a witness is asked what they were told happened by somebody else, not what happened to them personally) and struck even if the defense claimed they were merely political opponents doing smear jobs. Somehow Kincaid was the only person to have pictures as proof of Dukhovich's crimes despite this being set in the modern day and that is the only kind of evidence that seems to work.
    • Also, it is entirely possible to have witnesses testify from remote locations. Kincaid could easily have testified on a video chat from his cell and given the website information from there. This is common practice when the witness might be endangered by coming to the trial.
    • Even disregarding the above, you'd think the court would be a little more lax with the Exact Time to Failure considering that someone tried to murder Kincaid en route to the Hague.
  • In the 1991 martial arts film American Kickboxer 1, professional kickboxer B.J. Quinn (John Barrett) is sentenced to a year in prison for committing manslaughter. In addition, the judge also places a restraining order on Quinn by banning him for a period of five years from partaking in any competitive martial arts. In reality, a judge would not have the authority to ban someone for participating in a sport; that authority comes from said sport's sanctioning or governing body. Strange enough, Quinn never tries to appeal the judge's ban on competing.
  • The Hitman: It would not be legal for a police officer to work undercover as a contract killer, no matter how much of a Cowboy Cop he may be.
  • The Dark Knight Rises: The full scope of the Dent Act, an anti-organized crime law passed after Harvey Dent/Two-Face's death and Batman's disappearance in the previous film, is not fully explained in the film, but supplementary material states that it was passed by the Gotham City Council, denied parole to every inmate locked up in Blackgate, and does away with separate prisons for men and women. In real life, no American city would have this amount of authority over the criminal justice system — that belongs to the state governments, and it would certainly have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
  • Moriarty's trial in Holmes & Watson resembles nothing that has ever happened in a British courtroom. The judge wielding a gavel is just the beginning of the problems. Later, Dr. Watson is arrested and sentenced to hang without any trial occurring in between.
  • The horror movie Curse Of Bigfoot has a weird example where a teacher is talking about horror movies, but never actually names any of them, instead just alluding to "films about demonic possession" and "The movie with the great white shark", presumably because everyone involved in the production was under the misconception that actually saying film titles violates some copyright law.

  • Shadow Ops has to take some... liberties with the law to make its story surrounding a Superhuman Registration Act even remotely possible:
    • The McGauer-Linden Act, which allows the government to imprison or conscript Latents into military service - especially as a huge number of Latents are teenagers - is extremely unconstitutional. In US law, no Congressional act or executive order can violate the Constitution, and the McGrauer-Linden Act is among the most extreme imaginable violations of due process, which is protected by the Fifth Amendment.
    • In addition, the mere existence of FOB Frontier is a violation of the War Powers Resolution, which says that the President must inform Congress within 48 hours of a foreign military deployment and must withdraw them within ninety days without a Congressional authorization of military support. It's no surprise that the President is really, really unhappy with the idea of FOB Frontier becoming public and is willing to let everyone there die to keep it a secret.
  • In Kieshara, the serpiente legal system, which is presented as entirely humane and unproblematic, executes without trial any person accused of rape. Even by medieval fantasy standards, such a law would not work; every murderer would use it to kill their victims. Makes you wonder...
    "It is considered better to let an innocent man die than a guilty one live."

    Live-Action TV 
  • Madam Secretary:
    • During the election arc in the first half of season three, President Dalton, after losing his party's primary and unable to win a majority in the electoral college while running as an independent, instead forces a three-way draw so that the election will be punted to the House of Representatives, where he ekes out a win. This part is perfectly legitimate under the quite unique American Political System (it's happened three times in real life), but after that his main rival, Governor Sam Evans, sues in Ohio, hoping to get their waiver of their sore-loser law that got Dalton on the ballot overturned under a lobbying law, thereby invalidating Dalton's win in Ohio and giving Evans the win. This idea ignores a fundamental fact about the electoral college: all the state popular vote does is suggest to the state's electors how the residents want them to vote, and all electoral college ballots are final once submitted. At most Evans might delegitimize Dalton's win and cause him political problems down the road, but he can't actually overturn the election once the electoral college and House have already voted.
    • "Family Separation" borrows its plot from the Trump Administration's real-life policy, but the policy wouldn't make much sense in the immigration-moderate Dalton Administration. So the show has a state governor enacting the policy, even though US states are not empowered to execute immigration law in any respect (it's a civil matter under the auspices of the President's power to execute foreign policy as enacted by Congress).
  • In the Star Trek: Discovery episode "Context Is for Kings", protagonist Michael Burnham suspects Captain Lorca is developing biological weapons aboard Discovery and cites the Geneva Conventions' ban on them to him. There's a couple problems with this:
    • In real life, the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention cited actually doesn't outlaw bioweapons; those are covered by a different set of treaties (the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits their use but not their creation, while the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlaws them altogether). However, Burnham also cites a fictional 22nd century version of the Conventions under which these are apparently covered.
    • As noted by a few reviewers including SF Debris, in the preceding episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars", Burnham and Captain Georgiou developed a plan that directly violated a different portion of the Geneva Conventions, namely Article 6 of 1980 Protocol II, mining an enemy corpse so that it would detonate when recovered, which made her statement to Lorca seem rather hypocritical to viewers versed in international law.
  • In the NCIS episode "Ships in the Night", a suspect alibis out of the murder of the week via paparazzi video of a rendezvous with a senator's 17-year-old daughter. Ziva promptly arrests him for statutory rape to get him back for being a jerkass, and he goes "She told me she was 18." This would only be a valid charge if it took place in Virginia, which isn't stated: the age of consent in Virginia is indeed 18, but in Maryland and Washington, D.C. it's 16, and Maryland also has a Romeo-and-Juliet law. So, it only works in one of three jurisdictions the show typically takes place in (and the suspect is a civilian, so the UCMJ doesn't apply, either).

  • When Charles, Prince of Wales and soon-to-be-king of England refuses to grant assent to the Media Regulation Bill in the 2014 play King Charles III, the Prime Minister retaliates by proposing a bill to strip the Crown of its power to grant assent to any bill, which in normal constitutional circumstances can't make much progress in Parliament without King's Consent since it affects the Royal Prerogative.


Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence Law


Example of: