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Off on a Technicality

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"I punched some jerk in Tahoe; they gave me one-to-three,
My high-priced lawyer sprung me on a technicality,
I'm just visiting Springfield Prison; I get to sleep at home tonight."
Krusty the Clown, The Simpsons, parodying Johnny Cash

The criminal is caught, comes up for a trial — and then it turns out that he wasn't read his Miranda Rights, or the Cowboy Cop forgot to get a search warrant, or the confession was obtained via Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique. The judge is forced to throw the case out and the (alleged) crook walks free to offend again while their victims are left to suffer the ruling of a legal system more concerned about "procedure" than "justice".

In stories where a Vigilante Man or Cowboy Cop is the protagonist, the bleeding heart judiciary will accept any half-baked excuse for letting criminals go free. This is often a case of artistic license as in Real Life technicalities frequently don't apply the way they are depicted or may not even exist. If the accused person is the protagonist, then the "technicality" will actually be an albatross for them, because no-one will believe they're actually innocent until the end of the story/series when the actual criminal is found.

Most prevalent back in the 1960s and 1970s with the vigilante justice fad in fiction, after several court decisions seemed to tip the balance of the legal system far in favor of the accused. Since then, Real Life police and other law enforcement personnel have had these changes included into their training to avoid screwing up their cases, and the fictional versions have become rarer. It still happens, but unlike in fiction, it's more often the excuse for the acquittal, rather than the reason. Such as when a judge or jury doesn't feel the person is guilty in spite of the evidence or does, but feels their actions were justified, and exploits the technicality as a legal grounds to dismiss the case. Multiple technicalities certainly can be the reason for someone being acquitted, but it wouldn't be this trope, as this is when a single technicality results in a "not guilty" ruling.

The Downplayed versions, on the other hand, are absolutely Truth in Television. One example is where the technicality doesn't acquit someone outright, but goes in the defendant's favor. Most court cases are not made or broken on one thing, for either side. So a technicality can still reasonably be expected to influence the outcome of a case, but isn't likely to make or break it. Another example is the technicality resulting in a shaky case being dropped, or police falling just short of either reasonable suspicion or probable cause based on technicalities. If a case that's being built isn't particularly strong, it's not unheard of for prosecutors to either drop such cases or avoid putting too much energy into them if something, technicality or otherwise, gets in the way. So a technicality being just enough for an already iffy case not to end up in court is also Justified, as it happens in Real Life. If they get off completely when the case against them looked strong, it is almost always because the police or prosecution engaged in serious misconduct or completely dropped the ball on something extremely important. Even then, for them to get off completely instead of just getting a few charges thrown out, the judge has to really want to send a message, or the misconduct or bungling has to be so extreme that the entire conviction would have been overturned on appeal anyways.

In a Police Procedural, such as Law & Order, this will usually come in at the first quarter-hour mark, when the initial case falls through, and the DA tells the cops to find some non-tainted evidence or charges to rebuild a case from.

The Amoral Attorney with Rule Fu Stronger Than Yours loves taking advantage of this. The justice system may counteract it by Justice by Other Legal Means. The Insanity Defense is a version of this where the defendant (or their advocate) admits they did it but argues they aren't responsible for their actions because they were mentally incapable of determining right from wrong at the time.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Ah! My Goddess, when Belldandy has to face Hild in a race of flying brooms Urd and Peorth see that Hild's broom Gluhen Des Herzen looks more like a broom-shaped rocket than a broom, and demand she proves it's indeed a broom by cleaning the floor. Gluhen Des Herzen is a vacuum cleaner (or rather an electric broom, as Hild puts it), and as it can be used to clean a floor it passed Urd and Peorth's definition.
  • Don't try this in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. If Section 9 can't find (or make up) a counter-technicality, they'll just ignore the law to get you.
    • The Magnificent Bastard Big Bad Gouda almost gets off with this in the second season by using his plan as a resume for taking a job with the American Empire and leave the country under diplomatic immunity. Luckily, the Prime Minister has a technicality of her own; a piece of legislation which allows her to give Section 9 a great deal of "discretion" in detaining Gouda on the grounds that he's an important asset to the country. Something of a Chekhov's Gun, since the same law was brought up in an earlier episode.
    • Another episode involves an Amoral Attorney who gets his client off for killing his girlfriend in front of Togusa by spinning Togusa's actions (repeatedly shooting the man's cyborg arms with his sidearm) into Police Brutality and Fantastic Racism against cyborgs. Then, for an encore, he tries to release Togusa's involvement with Section 9 (a public secret) as part of the proceedings. This last part backfires on him: Although his client is released, Aramaki responds by having the attorney and the client killed in a car accident.

    Comic Strips 
  • Dick Tracy had this trope played a lot in Chester Gould's later years with Tracy being frustrated with it, often in the most Anvilicious way possible. Gould's successor, Max Allen Collins, would eventually tone it down with Tracy deciding he can work within the changes to due process well enough.

    Films — Animated 
  • In one of the Compilation Movies with the Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny attempts to arrest mobsters Rocky and Mugsy, but they keep getting away through loopholes. It's only when they kidnap Tweety Bird and is "rescued" by Sylvester the Cat do they finally go in.

    Music 
  • In Hank Williams Jr.'s song "I Got Rights", this happens at the trial of the man who murders the singer's wife and son.

    Tabletop Games 
  • GURPS has rules to account for when a PC is arrested. The cop making the arrest must (secretly) make a Law (Police) skill roll. On a failure, the PC (or his lawyer) can make a Law (Police) or Law (Criminal) skill roll to find what rule of procedure the cop broke and get the PC released on a technicality. If the cop makes a Critical Failure, the procedure breach is so blatant that the PC is released without trial. Of course, it would only apply in procedural societies or societies concerned with the human rights of their citizens, so don't hope to pull this off in a Control Rating 6 government where you will instead be subjected to a Kangaroo Court.

    Video Games 
  • In the second case of Aviary Attorney a witness turns out to be a blackmailed accessory to murder. The prosecutor claims that due to the highly irregular way this was discovered in the courtroom, nothing is admissible and she's free to go. Subverted as the defense attorney immediately knows that's a lie, but the prosecutor is more interested in justice and extenuating circumstances than throwing people in jail.
  • In the early Carmen Sandiego games, even if you caught up with the crook, if you didn't have a warrant, or had a warrant for the wrong crook, an arrest could not be made and the criminal would be allowed to go free.
  • Played with enough to apply to a racing game in GRID Legends. Nathan McKane slams Yume Tanaka off the track when she tries to pass, creating a horrifying pile-up and causing Yume to lose a leg. Afterward he takes no responsibility for his actions, almost bragging about nearly killing another driver. The GRID competition is full-contact racing and Yume suffered an independent mechanical fault, providing enough technicalities he's not held accountable for any of it. Until the end of the season, where the GRID racing commission release enough evidence McKane's team principal is arrested on criminal conspiracy and reckless endangerment charges related to Nate's on-track behavior. Nate is last seen gripped by quiet horror as he realizes his protection just disappeared.
  • Hitman: Contracts, where the Meat King got off on a technicality for murdering your client's daughter. The "technicality" is implied to be some form of bribery.
  • In the extended epilogue in Persona 4 Golden, this happens to Taro Namatame, the man who threw the people into the television. Since he lost his ability to enter the TV world, he can't reproduce his methods and the police don't have enough evidence to prosecute him despite his confession. None of your party members are too irritated by this, seeing as he genuinely meant well, nobody died because of him, and the true murderer is in jail.
  • The risk of this happening for the Big Bad in Persona 5 is what prompts the party to enter the final dungeon. Thanks to the party's actions the Big Bad confessed to many crimes, including multiple murders, on live television. The problem is The Conspiracy they led is still very much active, and its remaining members try to get him declared insane so his confession is disregarded. Once again the murder methods are supernatural, so the confession is the only hard evidence police have, and worse, the Big Bad was such a Villain with Good Publicity that the public refuses to believe he's guilty. The party is left with no other choice but to steal the Treasure of the entire Japanese public to prevent this trope from occurring.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • Pretty much every case in the series eventually boils down to this. There'll be a point where it's incredibly obvious who the actual murderer is, but unless the character can account for some detail of how the murder went down, the entire claim is discredited and the murderer goes free.
    • Happens in the backstory for Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, where Manny Coachen is cleared of murder because the prosecution suspiciously lacked the evidence they used to arrest him. And by suspiciously lacked we mean the smuggling ring stole it right before the trial.
    • In Gyakuten Kenji 2, one killer happily admits the deed... after the statute of limitations on the case has run out. Subverted when he gets arrested due to another technicality; because he fled the country, the statute of limitations got extended long enough to still be in effect.
    • An interesting variant happens in the case of poor Yanni Yogi in the first game. He really was innocent of murdering Gregory Edgeworth, but his defense attorney couldn't be bothered to make a solid case for it. Instead, he had Yogi plead insanity from oxygen deprivation (insanity from sleep deprivation in the movie) and only got him off on the technicality that Yogi wasn't in control of his actions at the time. This ends up completely ruining the life of Yanni (the movie goes into great detail over how everyone remained convinced that he did it and harassed him for being a murderer until his wife was Driven to Suicide) as well as the life of Misty Fey (who was somehow believed to be a fraud for naming the wrong person, even though by the case's verdict, Yogi did commit the crime). For his part, Phoenix refuses to resort to such tactics to get his clients found innocent.
    • The killer of the bonus fifth case in the first game, Police Chief Damon Gant, tries to invoke this by getting the evidence proving their guilt declared illegal by pointing out that Phoenix didn't present it the first time he was asked to. Phoenix is able to show it was legal by pointing out that the killer only linked the evidence to the case after the first time he was asked to present it.
    • The murderer involved in the final case of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney was counting on this to happen. All the evidence and testimony amounts to the murderer very clearly being the murderer, and he gets called out on this. There's only one very big issue: He's been locked away in prison during the whole time from when the case started, so how could he have done it if he was never at the scene of the crime? How could he get his hands on the murder weapon? How could he have it delivered to the crime scene? He knew the legal system inside and out and had an airtight alibi. It finally took a hidden camera to deliver a personal confession of the crime for the newly instated jury system to deliver the final verdict.
    • This is pulled more straight in Trials and Tribulations: Ron DeLite is found innocent of the crimes of the notorious Gentleman Thief Mask☆DeMasque despite him having confessed to being him... which was all part of the machinations of Luke Atmey, who took the fall for being DeMasque to get away with a murder he committed and framed Ron for. Once the truth is finally revealed, Ron can no longer be tried for ANY of Mask☆DeMasque's crimes due to double jeopardy and gets away scot-free.
    • In The Great Ace Attorney, McGuided gets a non-guilty verdict because there is not enough evidence to tie them to the murder after Ryunosuke discredits both key witnesses, even though Lord van Zieks and Ryunosuke come to realize that there was extensive tampering of the crime scene and the case's witnesses but they are unable to conclusively prove that it was McGuided who was behind it.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series:
    • Used by the weapons smugglers in the two-parter Two-Face, where Dent begins his slide into insanity. However, since this takes place in Gotham City, it is certainly a case of bribery and a corrupt judge.
    • Also appears in "Trial": new district attorney Janet van Doorn can't give Poison Ivy a life sentence since Batman brought her in and not law enforcement agents; the judge claims to only be able to throw her back into Arkham for the remainder of her rehabilitation sentence.
    • In the opening of I Am the Night, Batman reads in the newspaper that the Penguin avoided a guilty verdict through some unidentified technicality, and wonders if his crime-fighting makes any difference in the long run.
  • In the Danger Mouse episode "There's a Penfold In My Suit," Greenback seeks to steal the Swapping Stone of Bratislovakia, which causes a switch of bodies. He and henchman Stiletto fall victim to it as do DM and Penfold. After further confusion from additional body swapping, everyone (except Penfold, whose body would get swapped with the country's princess) gets their right bodies back. Greenback and Stiletto are set free as they had committed no crime.
  • Played for Laughs on Mission Hill when two thieves are on trial for attempted murder because they are being blamed for locking Kevin in the bathroom of a store and torching it, when in reality Kevin started the fire by trying to destroy the pornography he was masturbating to during the theft. Kevin's conscience gets the best of him and he admits the truth, and the whole courtroom begins mocking him until Andy jumps to his defense. Andy points out how everyone in that room enjoys pornography and "manipulating themselves", and yet they all pretend they are somehow better than that while Kevin had the guts to admit it under oath. The judge is so moved by the speech he dismisses all the charges — not just the attempted murder, but the theft charge the two thieves actually deserved much to the chagrin of the poor store owner while the thieves Griffo and C-Dog brag about it.
    Store Owner: But they robbed my store!
    Judge: Well... maybe you should have given a rousing speech!
  • Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: Count Evallo, the perp of episode 33 ("The Gathering Gloom"), is let off the hook, claiming diplomatic immunity.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Simpson Tide" Homer gets out of his military tribunal simply due to the admirals convicting him being indicted for crimes of their own, and thus unfit to try him.
    (After each admiral leaves, the janitor looks at Homer)
    Janitor: I think you're off the hook.
    Homer: Woo-hoo!
    • Inverted in an episode which has Homer's mother sent to prison on a "technicality" (having committed a petty crime on top of those she'd been convicted and pardoned of), and Homer exclaims "People should only get sent out of jail on technicalities!"
    • In "Stop or My Dog Will Shoot", Santa's Little Helper as a police dog catches Snake who then gets off on a technicality.
      Judge Snyder: I'm afraid because of this improperly filled out police report... (shows a report full of paw prints) ...I have no choice but to let you go. Case dismissed!
      Snake: (to Santa's Little Helper) Haha! Don't worry, dude. I'm going straight. Straight to my customers to sell more drugs!
      Santa's Little Helper: Grrr...
    • Sideshow Bob tries to pull this off when he kidnaps Bart with the intent to kill him at "five corners" (a fictional location where five states come together). His plan is to stand in one state, fire the gun in the second, the bullet travels through the third, hits Bart in the fourth and he falls and dies in the fifth. Bob thinks it would be impossible to convict him because no single act in any state would be illegal. As it would in real lifenote , this logic turns out to be complete nonsense, and he ends up arrested by police from all five states.
  • South Park: To avoid being arrested for illegal hunting, Jimbo always claimed his game was about to attack him. When a new law made it impossible to use that excuse, Jimbo started claiming he was reducing the animal population to save the whole bunch from starving to death.
  • In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, the Prowler was a minor street thug whose lawyer got his case thrown out since Spider-Man apprehended him but wasn't present to testify as to his guilt. Why Mary Jane couldn't ID him as the man who robbed her is never asked.
  • Teamo Supremo once faced a criminal said to have used a technicality to get away with previous crimes.
  • In The Venture Bros., Captain Sunshine apprehends the Monarch, only for the villain to reappear in his lair soon afterwards. When Dr. Mrs. The Monarch asks her husband what Sunshine did to him, he explains (visibly annoyed) that Captain Sunshine is an idiot with no understanding of "due process": he flew the Monarch to the state prison, dumped him in front of the guards in the courtyard, then flew away (this is a jab at Superman's use of this tactic). The prison guards, however, simply let him go...given that he hadn't been formally given a trial of any kind, or even formally arrested in the first place.


Alternative Title(s): The Loophole

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