5 Dumbass Legal Mistakes Movies Keep Making
Nobody wants to watch The Fast And The Furious gang sit through traffic court for two hours. In Hollywood, laws only exist when they're convenient to the plot. Otherwise, characters can steal cop cars, commit credit card fraud, and wildly drive tarmac stair cars alongside airliners without getting sniped from the control tower.
The problem is that even plots that are specifically about the law tend to get it so hilariously wrong that most of us grow up with no idea how any of that stuff actually works. If you do learn a thing or two about the subject, you'll suddenly realize ...
Daredevil Is The Worst Lawyer Ever
Yes, we get that this is a show about a superhero whose primary power is convincing henchmen to attack one at a time in hallways. But you'd think Netflix's Daredevil would at least do a little homework on the legal stuff. After all, it's not like being an attorney is incidental to the character -- that's Matt Murdock's whole deal. He doles out wholesale justice in the courtroom and in the streets. And also happens to be blind because justice is blind. GET IT?!?
LIKE THE PERSONIFICATION OF MORAL RIGHTNESS?!
The Legal Reality:
Both Daredevil and its titular character are awful at law, and in a way that really makes the legal system look so much worse than it actually is. Let's start with something simple that proves Foggy Nelson and Murdock are just terrible attorneys (our link is to the site Law And The Multiverse, dedicated to examining issues like this). There's a long, dramatic sequence when the Punisher enters the courtroom in chains:
Huh, that really does seem like it'd bias the jury -- you've got him dressed like a convict even though he hasn't been convicted of anything. The guy might as well be in a skull shirt. It's crazy that they do it this way!
Which is precisely why in real life, they don't. The Supreme Court has ruled that the State isn't allowed to make a defendant wear that in court. A prisoner may choose to appear that way, if for some reason they want to bias the jury or just don't know what the hell they're doing. But preventing a defendant from appearing in the dehumanizing garb of a prisoner is so crucial that public defenders often hold clothing drives to make sure their clients can dress up. This is Defense Attorney 101 shit here, but both Nelson and Murdock appear to have missed that class.
Though it is tough to find suit jackets with a skull on them.
There's also a thing really common in TV court dramas, which is that cases like this seem to go to trial before the victims have even finished dying. The judge gives Nelson and "Why does my suit have eye holes" Murdoch one week of pre-trial preparation time. High-profile trials (like ones for guys who have shot lots of people) are obscenely slow precisely because they require an absurd amount of prep work. For example, Aurora Theater shooter James Holmes was arrested in July 20, 2012 and didn't even start discussing plea deals with the DA until March 27, 2013 -- more than eight months later. His actual trial didn't start until two freaking years later. Just the process of selecting the jury took three months!
Once the trial starts, Nelson and Murdoch are railroaded by a clearly biased judge. There's no doubt that sort of thing happens in real life, but the system does account for the fact that judges are human and might be drunk that day. For example, she unfairly strikes the defense team's key testimony (from a medical examiner who admits falsifying records). Here's where a real lawyer objects -- not to get the judge to change her mind, but to preserve the issue for appeal (such an error on the part of a judge is one of the few things that can get a verdict overturned).
The legal system does love its do-overs.
Instead, Foggy and Matt sit on their thumbs, essentially erasing all possibility of ever using the cornerstone of their defense again. Later, a guy in the gallery starts shouting that Castle killed his father, which hands them a chance to request a mistrial. Two guesses as to whether they bother.
Speaking of which -- if you're ever attending a real trial, please do not attempt to bring a handmade sign rooting for one side or the other. Judges tend to frown on that.
As well as vuvuzelas.
Drunken Vegas Weddings Are Easily Annulled
According to Hollywood, the worst thing that can happen to you after a wild night in Vegas is to wake up married to some floozy. It happened to Ed Helms in The Hangover and to both Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders. But we're going to focus on perhaps the dumbest example, the film What Happens In Vegas.
And we truly mean that from the bottom of our hearts.
After a blackout drunk night, Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz awaken to find they have tied the knot. Following a brief argument and an agreement to call it quits, Kutcher plays a slot machine with Diaz's quarter and wins a jackpot worth 3 million dollars. Diaz, wanting her half of the money, reminds him "What's mine is yours" and shows him the marriage ring.
Cut to a scene in a New York City courtroom where a judge "sentences" them to six months of being husband and wife, because he's sick of people insulting the sacred institution of marriage. Romantic comedy shenanigans ensue. See? The law can be wacky, too!
He probably also has some real stimulating thoughts on same-sex marriage that you don't want to hear.
The Legal Reality:
This marriage could and would have been annulled in a hot second, and Kutcher would have made off with the entirety of the cash with precisely zero problems.
First, the marriage took place in Nevada. So if a New York judge has moral hangups about granting an annulment or divorce, you would just go back to the state where this sort of stuff is commonplace. Second, those two things we just said aren't synonyms. An annulment declares a marriage to be void from its inception: It's like it never happened. A divorce means the marriage is legally recognized, but the parties no longer want to have any legal relationship. This is important, because dividing marital property can only happen in the latter case. Which makes perfect sense because the law was not carefully designed to produce nothing but wacky conflicts.
A world where Night Court is not how things really work is not a world we care to live in.
In Nevada, grounds for annulment include "want of understanding." This allows either party to a marriage to get their marriage annulled if either were incapable of assenting. Basically, it's one of the few times getting black-out drunk is a legal excuse for doing something stupid. Ever wonder how celebrities like Britney Spears and Dennis Rodman have gotten out of their Vegas marriages in a matter of days, while somehow managing to not get sued for a mansion ... or six of them? Yeah, it's this thing.
So, because Kutcher's character was blitzed out of his mind at the time he said his vows and thus lacked the mental capacity to legally enter into the marriage, he would have easily gotten a Vegas attorney to annul his marriage (to the surprise of no one, there are Vegas attorneys who specialize in this very thing). All the proof he'd need is their hilariously wasted "wedding video" for a judge to grant a swift annulment, and Ashton would have walked away with 3 million dollars and precisely zero Charlie's Angels in tow.
Although in real life he walked away with several million dollars and precisely one Charlie's Angel.
Jim Carrey's Climactic Legal Argument In Liar Liar Was Completely Wrong
In a pivotal courtroom scene of Liar Liar, Jim Carrey's lawyer character pulls some major shenanigans to get his client Mrs. Cole half of her husband's estate despite what their prenuptial agreement says. Carrey is able to do this once he realizes Mrs. Cole lied about her age so she could get married. In fact, she was 17 (a minor in California) at the time she got married and entered into the prenuptial agreement with her husband. BOOM! Everyone knows minors can't legally enter into contracts! You just got lawyered, son.
By Jim Carrey no less, which can get you disbarred.
The Legal Reality:
It's true that there are laws to protect minors from getting tricked into signing themselves into slavery or Comcast bundles with onerous data caps, but once again there is some measure of common sense built in.
Except for gym memberships. Clarence Thomas himself couldn't get you out of that shit.
Any contract a minor enters into isn't automatically void, but voidable. That might seem like semantics, but there's actually a huge difference. A void contract is completely unenforceable, while a voidable contract is still valid after a certain point. In this case, that happens after the minor becomes a legal adult and either approves of the contract or lets a "reasonable amount of time" pass without doing anything to void it.
Again, this makes sense. If they're okay with the agreement after they're old enough to know better, they have effectively ratified it. You see why this completely sinks Mrs. Cole's case. Sure, she was a minor when she entered into the prenup, but 15 years had passed and she never made an effort to declare it invalid. That contract is ratified as balls.
"Goddammit, I just want to go home."
Copies Of Official Documents Work Just Fine For The Court
Movies tend to treat legal documents -- contracts, wills, etc. -- as magical items. If you possess the original document, you're good. If you destroy it, the agreement is void ("We have to steal the contract out of the safe by midnight, before it goes into effect!").
A good example of this is Changing Lanes. The movie you've probably forgotten starts with a minor fender bender between Ben Affleck, who plays a Wall Street attorney, and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays no-nonsense Samuel L. Jackson character #3567. Both men are late for court: Affleck must file documents that will ensure the control of a foundation for his law firm, and Jackson is on his way to a custody hearing. Affleck blows off the encounter by acting like a rich, smug Affleck, which you'll not be surprised to hear is a massive red flag for Sam Jackson #3567.
"I think we've all had it with these motherfucking Afflecks on this motherfucking planet!"
In his hurry, Affleck leaves the original document at the scene, and is now in a race against time to get it back because only original documents are admissible in court. Sadly, it's now in possession of Jackson, and Affleck is exactly as screwed as you'd expect in that situation.
The Legal Reality:
A copy of the document would have worked just fine, because courts are totally aware that documents are fragile things that can be lost to fire, floods, and stoned interns filing them in the wrong place.
"This was supposed to go to John Jackson, not Jack Johnson!"
According to the rules of evidence, a duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original, unless there is a genuine question as to the original's authenticity. That means the admission of a duplicate is pretty hard to challenge. The link there goes to a case in which a defendant in a counterfeit-check scheme insisted copies were no good because the original might have somebody else's fingerprints on it, and the court said that was stupid.
Otherwise, the only problem is if somebody insists the copy is a forgery, but that's not the case in the movie -- no one ever disputes the fact that the old man wrote and signed the document, not even the guy's own granddaughter. There are some states that require originals of some documents like wills be kept on file, but if your dog eats it, there are just some legal hoops to jump through to establish why you're going with a copy instead. You probably don't even have to show the judge the dog turds.
"But I mean ... if you want to show me ..."
Of course, there's always the chance that Affleck's character was just too stupid to make a copy of the single most important document in his life, in which case he was a disgrace to his profession anyway and fully deserved a Sam Jackson on his case.
There's A Reason Real Police Don't Work With Vigilantes Like Bruce Wayne
Obviously Batman operates outside the law -- The Dark Knight has a whole subplot about his pending prosecution for filling emergency rooms with Gotham's criminal underclass. It's when he works with the cops that things get complicated.
The most dramatic and idiotic example comes midway through that same film. Our heroes are faced with a problem: The key witness they want to use to prosecute the entire mob (Lau, the accountant that launders their dirty money) has skipped his happy ass back to Hong Kong, and is outside the jurisdiction of the Gotham District Attorney's office. We're then treated to this scene:
"Do I really need to be here for this pissing contest? Can you just give me an address?"
While on top of Gotham's police headquarters, D.A. Harvey Dent, police top dog Jim Gordon, and a billionaire dressed like a bat all hatch a plan to bring Lau back to Gotham, so he can testify against the mob. The problem is that the Chinese government "won't extradite a national under any circumstances." The solution: Since Batman isn't beholden to any pesky "laws," he can just kidnap the dude and bring him back to Gotham. Vigilante loophole, baby!
The Legal Reality:
No. Shit no. What?
While the vigilante loophole the movie seeks to exploit has a point in a "you can totally rob a bank if you don't get caught" sense, it loses a modicum of credibility if said vigilante goes on missions at the behest of the chief of police and the district attorney. If that were possible, every single police department would have a squad of dudes in rodent costumes running black-ops missions any time they can't get a warrant.
"You realize that the reason we can't jail organized crime members isn't because we can't physically arrest them, right?"
In reality, Batman would be considered a state actor, someone acting on behalf of a governmental body, and thus someone who's very, very much subject to the same regulation they are. Some indicators of state involvement that would qualify Batman as a state actor are: 1) a clear connection between the police and the private investigation, 2) completion of the private act at the instigation of the police, and 3) the private act is undertaken on the behalf of the police to further a police objective.
"But how would anyone prove that?" you ask. How about the fact that there's a goddamn Bat signal on the top of Gotham PD, specifically used to summon Batman for this mission? Legally, it's as if Gordon had gone to Hong Kong with a SWAT team and kidnapped Lau himself. That'd result in quite a shitstorm when it comes time to answer to the dozen or so enraged agencies who are going to be screaming questions at them in at least two languages.
"It's cool, I read the Wikipedia page on extradition."
Of course, the same logic can also be applied to pretty much every iteration of Batman who has provably aligned himself with the Gotham City Police Department. All the bad guys he's beaten to submission? Police brutality. All the evidence he's Batmanned up in ways normal cops couldn't? Constitutional limitations on search and seizure apply -- might as well toss it. Bet you feel real good about the Bat signal and the red phone now, Bruce!
Nick is a lawyer who hopes his writing career will continue to keep him out of the courtroom. Nothing in this article should be considered legal advice: This is a comedy website, ya dummy. Jordan Breeding has a blog, a band, and did pretty well in a music law class one time.
Also check out 25 Movie Heroes You Didn't Know Were Breaking The Law and 7 Movies With Horrible Mass Deaths You Never Noticed.
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