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Hollywood has never been afraid to sacrifice realism for the sake of an entertaining story. And since pretty much every movie or TV show features the police in some way, we as an audience get fed a lot of total horseshit about how the law works and how cops operate in the USA.

But as most of us are on the outside of the judicial system (for the moment) we usually don't even realize that what we're being told is incorrect. So we just accept things like...

7
Forensic Science is Magic

As Seen On:

The various CSI shows, Bones

Typical Scenario:

There has been a murder. While the regular cops are all wasting time talking about "witnesses," "motives" and "evidence," the CSI team walks in and gets shit done. Within seconds they find a single hair, scan it with a green laser and discover the identity of the killer, saving countless lives with their ingenious magical science. Hell, the CSI team will even pack up their guns and go arrest the guy!


His one mistake was having hair.

Why it's Bullshit:

First, do you have any idea how much random DNA you are carrying on the soles of your shoes this very instant? A hair from that bank clerk across town, gum from a Pakistani cab driver and semen from an undetermined source are all probably crawling around down there, ready to be tracked through a crime scene.

Also, certain laboratory tests such as DNA samples, toxicology and blood reports can take weeks or even months to process, and when they do finally arrive, they are about as clear cut as the plot to The Phantom Menace.


"Wait, they're racing now?"

Also, while DNA criminal databases do exist, less than 1/10th of all criminals are a part of it. Having a bit of DNA doesn't mean shit unless they have something to compare it to.

That means the CSI stuff is less about finding the killer and more about making sure they have enough evidence to convict the guy they've already pinpointed as a suspect through old-fashioned police work.

CSI is really just another victim of bad Hollywood science, kind of an extension of their "computers are magic" philosophy. It's appealing to think that any problem--even crime--can be stopped cold by nothing but the power of science and human intellect. Add a few dead hookers and an exploding car to the mix and you have the recipe for television success, baby.

6
The Insanity Defense Lets You Get Away With Murder

As Seen On:

Law and Order, Primal Fear, A Time to Kill

Typical Scenario:

So things aren't looking so great: The cops caught you stabbing a priest, which you have found out is illegal in your city. Fortunately, your lawyer is Richard Gere, and the two of you combine to convince the jury that you are insane, and that the crime was carried out by one of your multiple personalities.


The man who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer. The man who hires Richard Gere has a sentient nose for a lawyer.

You get off, innocent by reason of insanity! Congratulations, a couple of months at the mental hospital and you'll be back on the streets!

Why it's Bullshit:

Obviously if the legal system had this kind of Get Out of Jail Free loophole, the prisons would be empty. In reality, the Insanity Defense is attempted in less than one percent of all legal cases, which essentially means that more people have tried to pin their crimes on aliens or their evil twin rather than their own basket case, shoelace-eating lunacy.


"No no, it was my brother, Larry Busey!"

Of that tiny fraction where the lawyer was even willing to try it, the defense is successful less than 25 percent of the time. Three states in the US don't even allow insanity as a defense.

Then, in that tiny, tiny fraction of cases where the guy "got off" because he convinced the court he was insane, he doesn't get to just go home. You get sent to a mental institution where you don't have a set sentence at all--they keep you as long as they see fit, which may be forever. You're there until "deemed safe to return to society", which according to the American Psychiatric Association is usually twice as long as the jail sentence would have been.


Hope you like white gowns and staph infections!

This has always been one of those situations where people simply want to believe the system is worse than it is. We can't escape the idea that the courts are too soft on the bad guys and that guilty people are running free left and right. Besides, what is insanity, anyway? Can't you say that anyone who willingly kills another human being is "insane"? Won't giving these guys a free pass based on a little craziness bring the whole system down?

Yes, it would. Which is why the courts don't do it.

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5
Not Talking To Cops Equals Obstruction of Justice

As Seen On:

Law And Order, Numb3rs

Typical Scenario:

The hunt for the bad guy is on and his girlfriend/mother/dog might know where he's hiding. Jerry Orbach barges into their workplace demanding to know where said bad guy is laying low.

They don't want to cooperate with the cops, so they stay silent or develop sudden amnesia. Well that's just too damn bad, because Detective Briscoe says not cooperating with the police is called obstruction of justice and that'll get you a minimum of five years of rapetastic jail time.


"Starting to remember where your dad is now, Timmy?"

Why it's Bullshit:

Specifically, the 5th Amendment makes it bullshit. We, on the whole, don't really understand the 5th Amendment, because it has a really shitty marketing department and today is virtually synonymous with fat union gangsters hiding behind it like RoboCop is chasing them. Somebody "taking the 5th" means they're guilty, right?


Not everyone who gets arrested is an Italian-American stereotype.

No, it means under no circumstances can you be coerced into being a witness against yourself. And, since at the moment they speak to you, you don't know if you're a suspect or not, that means you always have the right to not talk to the police.

Now, obstruction of justice is a real thing, and it can be charged when you lie to the cops, destroy evidence or otherwise intentionally fuck up their investigation. But simply refusing to talk to them is not one of those things.

Note, however, that police do have the right to ask you to identify yourself in many states, in which case you do have to tell them who you are. And you do have to give them real answers (see the 1972 Supreme Court case Nebraska vs Heywood Jablome).

4
Undercover Cops Have To Identify Themselves If Asked

As Seen On:

Rush, Deep Cover, Monk

Typical Scenario:

An undercover police officer is meeting with a big time kingpin who wants to purchase some drugs/prostitutes in one the biggest drug/prostitution stings in years. It took months to establish the officer's rep on the streets all for this moment... and just then the kingpin asks the fatal question: "Are you a cop?"

The officer has no choice but to identify himself as a member of the police force and the entire operation goes to hell.


"It's OK, we actually knew the whole time."

Why it's Bullshit:

This is one of those tension-building devices in undercover cop movies (ie there's a tense scene in the Laurence Fishburne movie Deep Cover where he's forced to answer "yes" when asked the "are you a cop" question, then play it off as sarcasm) but even if asked directly, police officers have no obligation to blow their cover and get shot in the balls.

This makes sense if you think about it, since if that were really the rule there would be no sting operations whatsoever. Even the dumbest crackhead would remember to always ask his new supplier if he is a cop before each purchase.

Likewise for prostitution stings where the police pose as customers, then slap on the cuffs as soon as there's talk of blowjobs for cash. No, it's not entrapment, ladies.


Legally, it can't be entrapment without Sean Connery.

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3
Tracing a Call Takes a Long Time

As Seen On:

Every show in existence which featured a phone tap.

Typical Scenario:

"Keep him on the phone!"

Clint Eastwood IS a Secret Service agent sworn to protect the President. John Malkovich IS a crazed assassin who has called Eastwood to taunt him. Technicians scramble around the room to set up a trace to pinpoint the bad guy's location. Through a series of hand gestures they implore Clint to keep the him on the line. After all, it takes a full minute to do a trace!

Dammit! He hung up three seconds before we could triangulate his position! He knows our weaknesses!

Why it's Bullshit:

Have you ever tried prank calling 911? If so then go fuck yourself, but you probably also got a visit from a local patrolman telling you to cut that shit out. This is thanks to the Enhanced 911 system, which automatically pairs every incoming call with a physical address, in case a child or a dog dials for help or you're too busy getting stabbed to death to actually speak into the phone.


"Help! Someone invent a telephone!"

You might be saying, "But criminals use cell phones, you idiots!" Well prepare to get paranoid, because today the FBI can track down and remotely turn on any cell phone, and even use it as a microphone to spy on people. They could be listening in as we speak.


The government knows what you talk about with your boyfriend and they think it's totally hot.

2
Criminals Must Be Read Their Miranda Rights or They Will Go Free

As Seen On:

Every show that has involved a person being arrested.

Typical Scenario:

After months of grueling investigation and forensic work, the police finally get enough evidence to put the drug kingpin behind bars. The scene is the same every time: They bend his ass over the hood of the car and say, "You have the right to remain silent." That phrase is like the cops' end zone dance. They got you.


Touchdown, dirtbag.

And oh, by the way, if they ever forget to say the magic words at the time of arrest, that means you get to walk, right?

Why it's Bullshit:

Actually the odds are, some of you reading this have been arrested. And the odds are the cops didn't read you your rights, at any point. You may also notice the cops on Steven Seagal: Lawman, are never heard doing it, though you probably assumed that was because Officer Seagal enforces the law his way.


Pictured: Justice.

Not so. The "reading your rights" thing (aka the Miranda Warning) is NOT done to everybody who gets arrested. It's instead a warning for people who are about to be interrogated. That doesn't include you if you were arrested for, say, driving drunk and then peeing on the hood of the police car. They pretty much know what they need to know.

OK, but if they do question you and forget to read you the Miranda Warning, you get to walk, right? When they say guys got off on "a technicality," that's what they're talking about, isn't it?

Actually, no. All that means is the prosecution will not be able to use anything you said in court, which usually is just a bunch of drunken swearing anyway.

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1
Everyone Gets One Free Phone Call

As Seen On:

Law and Order, Hackers, The Matrix, every cop show ever

Typical Scenario:

Early in The Matrix, Agent Smith brings in Neo to interrogate him, throwing in his face all of the evidence they have of his various hackings. Neo, unfazed, demands to have "his phone call." Singular. Not, "I want to use the phone" or "I want a lawyer," but "I want my phone call."

You see this in movie after movie, where the character gets hauled in and has to decide who to contact with their one call. Presumably if the person they're calling isn't home, they're just stuck in the prison system until somebody notices they're missing.

Why it's Bullshit:

The "one phone call" rule is purely a Hollywood invention. Now that goes both ways; some jails have pay phones and you can call whoever you want as long as the person on the other end is willing to pay for it, but they don't have to let you use the phone at all.

Phone calls in prisons, jails or other detainment facilities are a privilege, which can be taken away whenever the cops feel like you weren't behaving yourself (that's why the privileges exist, so they have something to take away if you're being a dick and something to promise you to keep you in line).


Y'know, if the regular beatings weren't enough.

Now, you do have the right to an attorney, and if there's something you have to contact the outside world for (such as, somebody to deliver medicine to your poor sick mother) he'd be the one to talk to if the cops aren't letting you use the phone.

If you arrive at the jail with a cell phone, they are going to take that away for obvious reasons: So you can't use it to detonate a bomb implanted in one of your henchmen.

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