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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 Warning, 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.


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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.

  • 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 due to double jeopardy and gets away scot-free.

    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.
  • Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: Count Evallo, the perp of episode 33 ("The Gathering Gloom"), is let off the hook, claiming diplomatic immunity.
  • The Simpsons:
    • 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. This completely fails as he is arrested by the police of all five states. This is of course complete nonsense; he could be convicted of murder in any of those states or a federal court.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • One UK lawyer makes a very nice living getting the rich and famous off traffic tickets, speeding, drunk driving etc, exactly on this. The press started calling him "Mr. Loophole". He trademarked it.
  • A great many cases the judges don't want to decide (that is, political cases) are dismissed when the judges rule that the person bringing the case doesn't have standing to sue or that there was some sort of error in the procedure of the court or administrative agency below. This is especially true when the judges know that their decision would be hugely controversial (or alternatively, that they don't want to make the correct ruling because they like the status quo, even if it's wrong), but is especially common when, after reviewing the case and hearing oral arguments, the judges realize that they can't come to a majority decision on the merits, but that some technical ground exists that can avoid the embarrassment of a fractured or plurality decision.
    • A particularly famous case of this is Clay v. United States, the case about Muhammad Ali's refusal to submit to the draft.note 
    • That whole Supreme Court case about whether it violates the separation of church and state to have kids saying "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance at school ended very boringly when the Court ruled that since the father who filed the lawsuit didn't have custody of his kid, he couldn't claim to be protecting her First Amendment rights.
    • The Scopes "Monkey Trial", over the teaching of evolution in schools. Scopes's conviction was set aside on appeal: the Butler Act, forbidding the teaching of evolution, carried a mandatory fine of $100, which is what Scopes had been fined when convicted. However, Tennessee law of the time forbade judges from setting fines above $50, rendering the judgment invalid. It's been suggested that the judge knew this and did it intentionally, so the supreme court could overrule him on technical grounds, preserving the law from a constitutional challenge. Not to mention the entire trial was a fabrication to save the town of Dayton, Tennessee by putting it on the map, bringing tourist dollars in — Scopes hadn't even violated the law, only going along with it for this purpose.
    • This is what happened with Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case regarding California's Prop 8 (a ballot initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage). The Supreme Court kicked the case back to the lower court on the grounds that the plaintiff was not a party to the original case and therefore lacked the standing to appeal it (the original defendant, the state of California, had elected not to appeal after losing the initial case; a third party attempted to do so in its place), which meant that the original ruling would be upheld for the purposes of this specific case, but no precedent was set for the country at large.note 
    • Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission dealt with a bakery in Colorado refusing to design a custom wedding cake to a gay couple based on the owner's religious beliefs (although he was perfectly willing to sell them a cake off the shelf). The Colorado Civil Rights Commission originally found in favor of the couple, but the decision was later overturned by SCOTUS, who sidestepped the core Constitutional issue about whether a businessperson can refuse service to a group on religious grounds, in favor of ruling that the Commission had been unfairly biased against the baker. Failure to definitively settle the issue led to the baker being targeted and sued again by a transgender person asking for a gender-transition cake, which predictably kicked off a whole new series of suits and counter-suits.
    • The 2019 US Census Supreme Court lawsuit. The SCOTUS sidestepped the larger question of whether the US Census form can include a question about whether the taker is a citizen, ruling instead that the Commerce Secretary didn't go though the proper channels to include the citizenship question on the census form in this particular case.
    • In Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, the SC ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t end the Obama-era DACA program (which allow people who were brought to the US as undocumented immigrants as children to stay pending renewal for two years at a time) because they hadn’t followed the proper guidelines under the Administrative Procedures Act in doing so. Essentially that the administration was "arbitrary and capricious" in making a rule that would upend 800,000 people’s lives. Although in the majority opinion, Justice Roberts wrote that they were not ruling on whether or not the program was unconstitutional in and of itself.
  • If the US government has spied on you illegally and they classified the spying as secret, you can't sue. Because the fact that they spied on you is classified, you can't prove they spied on you. If you could prove it, you could sue, but the evidence is secret, so you can't. Even if you can prove that the government illegally spied on you, the feds will try to have the entire case thrown out on "state secrecy" grounds. Even if some of the evidence you have isn't secret. In evidence involving government spying, they can legally conceal the "sources and methods." All thanks to the Espionage Act.
  • Very often, technicalities (for example, improperly collected evidence or confessions) will result in a retrial with said data excluded, not a defendant "getting off scot-free". Ernesto Miranda himself was convicted on retrial, and went to prison (though he was paroled in only three years).
  • Older Than Radio: The 1714 Riot Act (read out to persuade a group of 12 or more delinquents to disperse, and yes, this is the source of the expression "reading someone the riot act") featured precise wording in what needed to be said, and multiple cases were thrown out because of the omission of "God Save The King".
  • As an example of how people think this trope is Truth in Television, Anderson Cooper reported a story about a young woman who robbed a bank, and then bragged about it on YouTube. She even flashed the money she'd stolen in front of the camera. The police found out about the video, and compared it to footage from the robbery, and noticed that she was wearing the same clothes in both. They promptly went to her house and arrested her. A reporter filmed the arrest from a safe distance. As she was being put in the squad car, the robber looked right at the camera and said "They didn't read me my rights," with a smile on her face showing that she thought she was about to get off scot-free. She probably sobered up quickly when her lawyer explained the situation to her.note 
  • An Australian man discovered that his bank would allow him to overdraft his bank account without any limit. He used this to pay off his mortgage and then spent the next few years living it up. By the time the problem was discovered, he had over-drafted his account by more than a million dollars. He was convicted of fraud and sent to jail. He represented himself at his appeal and argued that while his actions were immoral they were not actually illegal under Australian law. If he got the money by exploiting a computer glitch, it would be illegal but all his requests for money were actually approved by human bank officials. Fraud requires an element of deception but he never lied to anyone at the bank. Legally, all he did was ask the bank for a loan and the bank gave it to him no-questions-asked. The appeal courts agreed and overturned his conviction on the grounds that no crime was actually committed. He still owed the bank a ton of money but that was a civil matter. The bank seized all his assets but forgave the rest of the debt in order to avoid further bad publicity.
  • In a non-criminal example, this is how supporters of 1912 US Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe got his medals from those Olympics reinstated after he was stripped of them for violating the rules at the time that required athletes to be amateurs. Rather than continue to argue the underlying violation, they pointed out another rule that required any protest of this type to be made within 30 days of the closing ceremony and provided evidence that the objections leading to Thorpe's disqualification had not been raised until after the 30-day window had already passed. It worked; Thorpe's medals were reinstated in 1983, 70 years after the initial disqualification.
  • In the US State of Maryland, a man was involved in a very bad traffic accident. The news did not report if the man had been drinking, but since the State Trooper wrote him a ticket for reckless driving - a driving offense punishable by a fairly serious fine and points on his license - drunk driving was probably involved. At some point, probably a while after the accident, one of the victims died. The driver went to see a lawyer. The lawyer essentially told him to run, not walk, to the courthouse and pay the ticket before someone realized what was going on and cancelled it. So he paid the ticket, which is the equivalent of pleading guilty. Shortly thereafter he was charged with manslaughter, (either vehicular or involuntary, it didn't say) and was convicted. On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) found his paying the ticket was a conviction for reckless driving, making his subsequent trial for manslaughter a violation of double jeopardy, and set aside his conviction. His paying a fine saved him from jail time and a criminal conviction. To this day, many years later, police in Maryland never write a ticket for serious auto accidents with bodily injury or death until a prosecutor has a chance to review the case.
  • As recounted in Ojibwa Warrior, Dennis Banks and others of the American Indian Movement were involved in a standoff with federal forces at Wounded Knee over an attempt to secede from the United States. Afterwards, at his trial, the judge dismissed the charges related to fighting the US Army because the military is not allowed to participate in civilian law enforcement.note 
  • Charles J. Guiteau, the man who shot US President James Garfield, attempted to do this in order to evade a murder charge, arguing that even though he shot Garfield, he wasn't responsible for Garfield's death because Garfield's death resulted from medical malpractice in the treatment of his injuries rather than as a direct result of being shot (which is technically true — many historians believe that Garfield would likely have survived with proper care — but does not negate the fact that Guiteau set the chain of events in motion). The argument failed to persuade, and Guiteau was found guilty of murder and executed.
  • Bill Cosby served nearly three years of a three-to-ten year sentence for sexual assault before having the conviction vacated due to a procedural screw-up. In 2005, District Attorney Bruce Castor declared in a press conference that there wasn't enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Cosby and used this to compel him to self-incriminate on the stand during a civil trial against him. The testimony he gave in that trial was later used to convict him in his criminal trial; the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the press release constituted a legally binding promise that had been used to screw Cosby out of due process and his 5th and 14th Amendment rights had been violated, and released him.
  • There is a 50-square-mile (129.50-square-kilometer) area in Yellowstone National Park in which a person cannot be convicted of any major felony. This is because of a loophole in the Constitution: A person is entitled by a trial by jury, but due to federal laws regarding the park, it is impossible for there to be any valid jurors to start a trial for the crime.

Alternative Title(s): The Loophole