John A. Steakely

Attorney John Steakley is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. He began his career as the Special Prosecutor for Drug Crimes for a multi-county, multi-agency drug task force in Tennessee, where he represented the State of Tennessee in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases in a 5-county judicial district.

Top Ten TV Myths About Criminal Law

Top Ten TV Myths About Criminal Law

It is nearly impossible to watch a TV cop drama with a prosecutor, defense attorney or cop.  Here's why:

Top Ten TV Myths About The Criminal Justice System


1. Cops have to read people their rights.

"You have the right to remain silent . . ."  Pretty much every cop, every prosecutor, every criminal defense attorney, and every Law & Order junkie can recite the rest of the Miranda rights that we hear on television, leading people to think it's required.  It isn't.  Police can arrest suspects all day long and twice on Sunday without ever reading them anything.  Only if the police want to also question them are the Miranda rights required. 

2. Guns have to be registered. 

It's a common line on cop dramas that someone has an "unregistered handgun" or a discovered handgun will be found to be "registered" to someone who will be tracked down and give the police their first lead.  But there is no national gun registry.  A few states have them, but most don't.  And while their might be a record kept of who bought a gun originally, there's no record kept of who that person sold it to the next day.

3. There is a fingerprint database with everyone's fingerprints.

Whenever a fingerprint is found at a TV crime scene, a quick AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) always turns up the owner.  While AFIS is certainly a powerful tool for law enforcement, it contains only about 100,000,000 fingerprints, or about 1/3 of the people in the US.  I.e., there's only a 30% chance that a fingerprint found at a crime scene can be matched to any known person.

4. There is a DNA database with everyone's DNA.

Whenever a DNA sample is collected on TV, the police usually have identified a suspect by the next commercial break, because the DNA matches a sample in the database.  That's nowhere close to reality.  The DNA version of the fingerprint database is called CODIS, but it contains less than 10,000,000  DNA samples.  So while it's great that law enforcement may collect a sample at a scene, there's only about a 1-in-30 chance that there is a matching sample in CODIS. 

5. Crime lab tests take about 30 minutes.

On TV, the crime lab test of some unknown substance is completed before the next commercial break, leading to another clue or suspect by the bottom of the hour.  In reality, crime labs are often backed up for weeks or months.  Even a simple test to confirm that the GLM (green leafy material) that everyone already knows is marijuana is actually marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol) can take longer than an entire season of a TV cop drama. 

6. Cops taste drugs.

No cop in his right mind is going to stick his finger in some pile of unknown white powder and taste it.

7. Cops make deals.

On TV, cops will sit down with minor suspects and cut plea deals if they give up information on the larger suspects.  In reality, cops don't have the authority to make deals.  Most suspects don't know that, so the tactic still works.

8. Entire teams of cops focus all their energy on a single case.

To watch TV, one has to wonder what these people are going to do once the case is over, because it appears they don't have another single case going on. In reality, a detective splits his time between scores or hundreds of cases, and his fellow detectives have their own caseloads.  The faster they can arrest someone, close the case and move on to the next one, the better.  Good luck getting two of them on the same case, let alone an entire team.

9. Cops can't lie.

I suppose it would be unseemly if the hero cop on your favorite TV drama blatantly lied to a suspect in order to get a confession from him.  In reality, cops are free to do that and often do.  To "challenge" a suspect with untrue information in an effort to see how the suspect reacts is just one more completely legal tool in their bag of tricks, and it works.

10.  Trials are short. 

TV can be excused, I suppose, for trimming trials down to a manageable size.  An actual felony trial can take anywhere from two days to several weeks.  My personal record is about eight days in a Gwinnett County murder case.  Unlike doctors, where even a heart transplant can be performed in a single workday, a criminal trial is measured in days or weeks.



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