The Cinematic Guide to Law


Ah, the law, what would we be without it? Of course, the rule of law has the power to either put criminals in or let them go free. May not always be fair but tries to be. Now I’ve never been in a courtroom (though I’ve been in the Pennsylvania State House for a quiz bowl tournament), nor served on a jury. It may not always work out in the way we want it to but it always tries to be fair even if those working in it don’t seem to be so. Still, it is a very tricky subject since laws are different from certain jurisdictions. Yet, we should all know it doesn’t work like it does in Hollywood movies. And I’ve seen plenty of movies based in a courtroom and pertaining to crime since law and crime both go together. So before you can raise any objections, Allow me to list the inconsistencies (for this, I’m going to use US Law unless otherwise):

1. Almost every legal system and court procedure is basically similar in every developed country. (In Hollywood, being in a courtroom in a foreign country is like attending Catholic Mass. Sure there may be some small differences like a powdered wig and different language, but is mostly conducted in the same formula like in a Catholic Mass. Of course, in the legal arena, most movie court procedures and legal systems in developed nations work in the same way as they do in the United States. Actually, this is really not the case. For instance, you don’t have the right to remain silent in England, you don’t have a right to be tried by a jury in the UK, and you didn’t have the right to be legally represented during questioning in France before 2011. Also, British judges don’t use gavels, German attorneys don’t say “Objection!”, and very few countries outside the US use plea bargaining.)

2. Litigations usually take days and most of it happens in court. (Real litigation takes months and almost none of it happens in court. In fact, it’s preferable if most legal disputes are settled out of court and most guilty parties take a plea bargain. Court proceedings are best to be avoided because it costs money and used as a last resort.)

3. Bail is an easy way to skip a future trial and possible sentencing. (Hollywood tends to treat bail as a Get Out of Jail Fee option. It’s actually not quite the case. When an accused is released on bail, he or she is making a promise to show up for trial and won’t go to jail unless convicted. Those who can’t pay bail will remain in prison until trial. Those demonstrated as likely to flee the court are denied bail and will stay in prison until trial.)

4. All prisoners are convicted criminals. (Well, we may think that way, but it’s not exactly the case. Of course, all prisoners are in there on something related to a crime but not all are convicted for it. Sure many prisoners were convicted of crimes but many prisoners in the United States basically plead guilty and took a plea bargain sentence.Then there are some prisoners who are in jail just for being accused of a crime and are waiting for their case to be tried, which could take years. Of course, this group of prisoners weren’t released on bail simply because they couldn’t make it or it was denied. Then there are kids in juvenile detention who are in there because they were wards of the state and had no other place to go.)

5. Criminal proceedings start almost immediately after the suspect’s arrest. (Actually, other than bail and plea bargaining, most criminal proceedings don’t usually start until months after the arrest, sometimes years.People have spent years in jail awaiting trial.)

6. In murder investigations usually have a chalk outline of the victim’s body at a crime scene. (Sorry, Jerry Seinfeld, but chalk outline guy doesn’t exist. Using chalk could contaminate the area, making the investigation much more difficult. And investigators want as little contamination as possible. Besides, there are photographers who take pictures of the crime scene before the body is carried to the coroner’s office.)

7. Most lawyers work in both civil and criminal cases, with latter doing both prosecution and defense. (Actually there are many lawyers that do like Johnny Cochrane but most small towns have at least one lawyer who does one and/or the other but usually at small stakes like what Atticus Finch does. Yet, if such cases involve serious crimes or large sums of money, they usually go to someone who specializes in that area. And most US jurisdictions usually have prosecutors working for the state.)

8. The accused has a right to one phone call upon arrest to anyone at all. (If you are arrested and are guaranteed access to legal counsel, any outside communication is a privilege that can be witheld or given. However, most police officers allow suspects make as many phone calls as they like to whoever they please since such conversations can be recorded as evidence.)

9. Police can do a strip or deep cavity search on anyone. (These procedures are only reserved for people with reasonable suspicion of smuggling either drugs or weapons and are limited to such.)

10. Old people can be involuntarily committed to a retirement home for whacking a guy over the head with a cane who was struggling with him over his mailbox. (For one, involuntary commitment to a retirement home is something only a person’s next of kin can do. Since Carl from Up has no next to kin to speak of, he probably wouldn’t be sent to a retirement home unless if it was by his own accord. In fact, this would more likely happen to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino since he has two sons and four grandchildren. Could be prosecuted or sued for assault but probably wouldn’t be. Second, tampering with a mailbox is a federal crime.)

11. When wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime, it’s okay to go on the lam until you’re exonerated. Even though you may commit other crimes along the way, all will be forgiven. (You should never go on the lam if wrongfully accused of a crime. No should you go around committing other crimes prior to exoneration either because they may come back to bite you. Also, Harrison Ford could’ve just gotten a better defense attorney and should’ve least gotten off on his wife’s phone call alone which pretty much exonerates him from the crime.)

12. You won’t be charged with killing someone if you were falsely convicted for his or her murder before. (Actually killing that person will result in getting your previous conviction reversed and then eligible for prosecution on a new murder charge. So, Ashley Judd, hunting your husband down in another city and killing him there isn’t really a good idea, especially if you’re on parole. Also, it doesn’t help if you commit burglary, theft, destruction of property, escape from custody, assault on a law enforcement officer, unlicensed possession of a firearm, transporting an unlicensed weapon across state lines, and assault with intent to kill. Man, you should’ve sought your husband out with his picture and a camera just to prove that he’s still alive. Yet, you ended up screwing your chances.)

13. It is easy to convict an innocent person and might have to serve a harsh sentence even if it’s for a legitimate but otherwise minor offense. (Sure innocent people do get wrongfully convicted but not at the frequency in Hollywood movies. And even if an innocent person is convicted on some minor offense, he or she will not serve a harsh sentence.  If there’s an incident where there is a massive railroading of innocent people in the legal system, then the authorities will start getting suspicious of judicial corruption akin to the “Cash for Kids” scandal. Racism can also play a factor.)

14. A ruthless criminal can be released on a meaningless bureaucratic procedure slip up despite being proven absolutely guilty of the heinous crime in question. (Well, not as often as many would think. A ruthless criminal will not get off on a “technicality” which will typically be overruled as a harmless error anyway like a spelling mistake. Yet, it is possible for a criminal to be let off on “loopholes” regarding serious policy concerns such as sloppy police work, vague legal definitions, or serious rights violations by police and prosecutors. Then there are some exceptions such as the “good faith exception” {police believing they were operating legally despite illegally obtaining evidence}, independent source {police discovered the same evidence through other legal means}, or inevitable discovery {police would’ve found the evidence legally anyway so it’s left in}. So a ruthless serial killer would be less likely to escape justice in real life than Hollywood would suggest. As for white collar criminals, well, they’ll probably get off due to having money for a good lawyer.)

15. Witnesses are called from the courtroom audience to the stand. (Witnesses aren’t permitted to attend the trial or even talk to other witnesses about the case before they testify. Witnesses can only sit in for the rest of the trial after they finish their testimony and it’s agreed they will not be called back. Calling a prosecutor to the stand is possible if a judge allows it but is almost never done.)

16. You can walk out of the courtroom free if your insanity defense works. (Unless it’s temporary insanity, you’ll probably walk out of court accompanied by a couple of burly orderlies of a mental institution. Whether you walk out free is at the discretion of a psychologist or psychiatrist. Only used less than 1% of all criminal case in the US and successful 25% of the time more or less. Also, in 20 states and under US Federal law getting off on insanity may mean prison time if “cured” of mental illness. And those who get off on insanity your time in a mental institution may be longer (like twice as long) than your normal sentence would be nor is it more comfortable or safer than prison. Those deemed criminally insane will be separated from everyone else, and no, they aren’t easier to break out of. So unless you’re facing the death penalty in a murder case, it’s not worth it. Now I can see why so many mentally ill people wind up in prison.)

17. Not having a motive proves your innocence and no longer makes you a suspect. (Only lawyers and jurors care about motive since it may have importance in sentencing or at if the crime was done in intent or by accident. However, to criminal investigators, motive is of minimal importance.)

18. Wrongful conviction can get you out of jail as long as you’re looking for the people who successfully framed you. (You’d be in jail and besides motives aren’t very relevant in the legal system. At best, you’d probably be serving a lesser sentence of involuntary manslaughter if convicted for murder.)

19. The reading of the will always happens after the funeral. (That usually doesn’t happen. Rather, the executor, spouse, or next of kin usually calls the deceased’s lawyer to see about the will. The lawyer and executor meet and take the will through probate court. Unless you’re a beneficiary wanting to see it, the lawyer, or the executor, you’ll probably never see it. As a beneficiary, you might receive a check, be told it’s your inheritance, and sign a receipt. Also, the will doesn’t really mean a great deal as the probate does. And if a will’s contested, it’ll probably be ignored so don’t hesitate to kill anyone over it even if you’re disinherited for “reasons you’re aware of.”)

20. You’ll be read your Miranda Rights when you’re arrested. (Actually, they can be read between the time you’re arrested and the time you’re interrogated, depending on crime or jurisdiction. Not to mention, it doesn’t get you out of providing a DNA sample.)

21. If a wrongly accused defendant is on trial, it’s very likely a witness may have actually done the crime. (Only a slim percentage of felonies make it to trial and the pre-trial process takes years. Also, if a witness actually did the crime, it’s exceptionally rare in a trail case and would’ve been found out by investigators long before the case ever made it to trial in the first place. Not to mention, the defense doesn’t really need to find the “real culprit” to win, just establish reasonable doubt. Still, criminal accomplices frequently turn on each other for reduced sentencing so they can testify against the defendant.)

22. Only a guilty person will ask for an attorney or call for his or her own. (You are always entitled to legal counsel regardless of whether you committed the crime and wanting a lawyer doesn’t make you guilty by default. Any sane person accused of a crime would do this.)

23. Acceptable courtroom behavior for lawyers: badgering witnesses, accusing witnesses, asking questions regardless whether the previous ones are answered, make inflammatory assumptions facts aren’t in evidence, introducing conspiracy theories, bullying a witness into confession, turning a courtroom into a circus, enter a plea change without the client’s consent, and other courtroom antics. (Many of these can put a lawyer in contempt of court, removal from case, or possibly disbarred. Also, may cause the judge to declare a mistrial. Not to mention, judges usually have different levels of tolerance so any smart lawyer would know what he or she could get away with when it comes to a particular judge.)

24. Accepted behavior for criminal investigators: using enhanced interrogation methods on suspects, destroying property to obtain information, badgering and verbally abusing suspects, psychologically manipulating suspects into confession, assuming a suspect’s guilt without a concrete reason, denying medical attention and legal counsel to suspects, and other things. (These are reasons why the law is used to protect criminals. Also, many of these are technically illegal and can result in a cop being kicked off the force.)

25. Evidence or testimony exonerating or condemning the defendant can be introduced to the trial at the last minute. (This can happen but rarely does. Still, both sides must make available all evidence they tend to use before the trial {except in the case of the defense which is actively barred from sharing possibly incriminating evidence}. Still, all witnesses and evidence must be approved by the court before used. In civil suits, both sides must turn over properly requested evidence without exception.)

26. It’s all right for a jury or judge to exonerate a defendant if accused of breaking a law that sucks or is just plain unfair or unjust. (Jury nullification is perjury which jurors have sworn against. They are sworn to reach a verdict according to existing laws. Not to mention, this undermines the separation of powers since judging the laws is the legislature or Congress’s job. Not that they’re good at it anyway these days.)

27. You can sue a firearms manufacturer for criminal misuse of their products. (Thanks to Congress, this isn’t currently possible. Still, doesn’t mean it should. But then again using guns to kill is kind of the point.)

28. Mistreatment of a suspect results in automatic acquittal, regardless of undeniable evidence. (It doesn’t. Coerced confessions are just excluded from evidence but the suspect can still be tried on what’s admissible.)

29. Income tax evasion is a state crime. (It’s a federal crime. Anyone who’s taken a social studies course would know that.)

30. Polygraph testimony can be used as admissible evidence. (It can’t, because people have passed polygraph tests despite lying while others failed despite telling the truth. In short, it’s not reliable.)

31. Police interrogations last as long as a therapy session. (They can last for hours or days and aren’t really that exciting since they involve a boring question and answer session in an attempt to wear the suspect down. Aggressive tactics are rarely used.)

32. Good defense lawyers only defend innocent clients. (They also defend guilty ones, too. Part of the job. Prosecutors go after any defendant regardless of guilt or innocence because that’s the job description.)

33. A member of a jury can conduct his or her own investigation and bringing a weapon into the jury room. (These are examples of serious juror misconduct. Juror #8 should’ve been replaced and charged.)

34. Only white men served on a US jury between 1920 and 1970. (Only in some parts of the country like in the South. Still, there are more diverse juries in Old Hollywood movies. Maybe 12 Angry Men had something to do with this.)

35. The system is useless in protecting victims of society. (Sometimes but Hollywood mostly exaggerates this.)

36. A judge can simply order a jury switch without the parties’ consent during a trial. (No judge can call a jury the parties’ didn’t select before the trial. If the jury falls to corruption, the judge can simply declare a mistrial and the process starts all over again.)

37. Cops can threaten to use lethal force against suspects. (This is mostly forbidden in most police departments. Not to mention, a cop shooting anyone in the line of duty results in suspension and internal affairs investigation.)

38. Frivolous lawsuits are almost always brought to court. (Most frivolous lawsuits are simply thrown out of court. Also, when suit is filed, lawyers have to make reasonable inquiries before pursuit. As for frivolous lawsuits, don’t use the one about the old lady who burned herself after spilling coffee at McDonald’s, she actually did have reasonable clout to sue.)

39. Making a citizen’s arrest is illegal. (Actually it is but like acting as your own attorney, not highly recommended.)

40. Executions happen right after the judge imposes death sentence. (Most convicts on death row stay there for years, perhaps decades. Also, many of them try to commute their sentence to life in prison through the appeals process which takes years and costs millions of taxpayer money. Many people oppose the death penalty on the basis that letting a criminal spend life in prison is actually cheaper than executing one.)

41. A lawyer using “disregard that statement” is only being polite when the opposing attorney objects. (Saying this might cause a lawyer to get disbarred.)

42. You can be put in jail for killing someone in self-defense. (Well, unjustifiably, but if self defense is proven, you get off on justifiable homicide or on “shoot first” laws if it involves a firearm and firing first, unfortunately. God, Zimmerman should’ve went to jail for manslaughter at least and shouldn’t have been allowed to own a gun {I mean he’s had previous run ins with cops and a domestic restraining order}. Yet, you can go to jail for firing a warning shot at an attacker, since it counts use of deadly force even if you didn’t intend to hit him or her. And not intending to hit the person is considered evidence you didn’t actually fear for your life. So if Zimmerman fired at Trayvon Martin and missed, he’d be in jail. Shit.)

43. Restraining orders are either ineffective or nonexistent. (They do exist and do work. A legal order for a person to stay away or face arrest is pretty effective. Still, why women in movies don’t file restraining orders against their abusive husbands is beyond me.)

44. You won’t get punished for taking the law into your own hands if the notorious criminal who wronged you goes free. (Uh, yes, you can and you probably will. In the real world, two wrongs don’t make a right.)

45. No one can testify for or against their spouse accused of a crime. (Spouses actually could if they wish to do so. They just can’t be forced to, as a spousal privilege, even if the couple later divorce. In other words, spouses can testify but they can’t be subpoenaed in cases involving his or her partner. Still, spousal privileged is suspended if both partners are on opposite sides.)