Television and the big screen provide a wealth of enjoyable entertainment. One thing that makes them so entertaining is the ability to step away from reality. For a moment in time, we can step outside the drudgery and mundane boredom of the real world.
Movie and television plots frequently exploit our sense of truth. Frequently, our U.S. legal system is the foundation for the storyline. Like fictional tales of extraordinarily outlandish tales of magic and mystery, movies and TV can present a magical portrayal of our legal system.
Many of the plot twists manipulate existing laws. Others distort the actual ability we have to legally hide behind various constitutional rights. Some of these TV and movie myths involve diplomatic immunity or skirting prosecution for not being “read your rights”.
1) There are a number of ways that TV and the big screen use these little legal plot twists to help enhance the crime at hand. One such bizarre movie plot twist involves killing someone, again. Double jeopardy prevents citizens from being wrongfully tried for a crime repeatedly.
However, no one should mistakenly think this legal protection opens a window of murderous opportunity. Just because someone is charged with killing someone yesterday doesn’t mean they can’t be arrested and prosecuted for killing the same person on a subsequent day.
2) A number of famous TV and movie storylines involve defendants claiming diplomatic immunity. We’re sorry to inform you, but if the crime is serious enough, screaming diplomatic immunity will not prevent prosecution.
Your home country can also remove the immunity clause and prosecute you as well. Before you attempt to apply diplomatic immunity as a defense, it’s best to search for a scapegoat or dig up a convenient alibi.
3) In addition, despite the Academy Award-like courtroom performances, no lawyer, Hollywood icon or not, can bully a witness into confessing. While “Matlock and Perry Mason” were masters at the art, such real courtroom antics would trigger equally vocal objections from the defense.
4) Another often misused legal standard involves your Miranda Rights. Frequently, TV and movie law enforcement actors carry a card in their shirt pocket. Just because “Kojak” didn’t pull out his card, reading it aloud while cuffing you, that’s not automatic grounds for an acquittal.
The idea of reading a suspect their Miranda Rights primarily involves the process of interrogation. The key point is the “right to have counsel present during questioning”. That is the primary reason that the Miranda Rights exist.
However, even if you’re not read your Miranda Rights that doesn’t mean you can’t be prosecuted. The only thing lost will be any testimony garnered from your interrogation. You may still face charges, and be found guilty if additional evidence proves the case.
5) There are also several other mistaken truths we might find surprising once presented with “nothing but the facts”. One is that every case eventually finds its way into a courtroom. That’s not actually true. The vast percentages of cases are settled out of court.
6) By that same standard, a large majority of the country’s lawyers rarely, if ever, step inside an actual courtroom. Furthermore, juries are not only used to decide criminal cases, but a panel of jurors is often assembled to settle civil disputes.
7) Trials, especially jury trials, can invariably last far longer than the few days we assume from TV and movie plots. Sometimes cases can take months. Another big lie used in TV and movie criminal trials is the idea the jury can “disregard a statement”.
This one flies against reality as much as it does against actual legal precedent. Most agree, it’s awfully hard to erase a statement from the human mind just because a judge says it’s so. There’s also a great deal of misconception involving the guilty plea.
8) A guilty plea doesn’t always mean you’re automatically guilty. Legally, someone can plead using what is called the “Alfred Plea”. Judges aren’t keen on the idea, but it is legal. Alfred pleas are typically used by the defense to lessen a pending sentence.
9) Additionally, a deranged outburst by a defendant spawns the perfect plot twist. However, insanity pleas aren’t a common legal scapegoat. In fact, it only happens about one percent of the time. A fair percentage of these are for murder cases, and over 75 percent are unsuccessful.
10) One more frequently exercised twist used to grab the audience is the introduction of “surprise evidence” or a “surprise witness”. This simply will not happen in a real life courtroom. While it makes for a fantastic Hollywood storyline, the real rules of evidence and witnesses are strict.
So, while it’s enjoyable to absorb Perry Mason and Matlock dissecting a prosecution’s case, there’s a lot of swine fodder added for spectacle. It might be utterly rewarding to watch a suspect jump up, screaming “I did it, and I’m glad I did it,” but alas, it’s still only Hollywood.