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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Gwinnett Marijuana Grow House Searched, Bananas Found

Gwinnett Marijuana Grow House Searched, Bananas Found

A Gwinnett County amateur botanist got a hard lesson in the War on Drugs recently.  Police appeared at his door with "information" that he had a marijuana grow house and a search warrant to boot.  They were determined and rude, harassing the innocent homeowner for a confession to a crime he wasn't committing:  

"They said, 'Just say you had plants and you moved them someplace else.' And I just kept telling them the truth. There was never a marijuana garden here," said Scott Smithwick.

Smithwick has set up high intensity lamps, fans and a watering system in two basement rooms in the Lawrenceville home that he shares with his father. He said he does not grow, sell or smoke marijuana and uses the equipment to cultivate mostly tropical plants and flowers.

"I'm a plant freak. Inside I grow banana plants, orchids, and other tropical plants," Smithwick told Channel 2's Tom Regan.

Smithwick has banana trees growing in his basement in January.  Those aren't plants you can grow outside in Georgia in winter.

Several weeks ago, police went to his home twice, the second time with a search warrant. They said they had information that he was producing marijuana.

Information from whom?  Let's name the person who claims this guy was growing marijuana. Additionally, the police should have corroborated the information before getting the search warrant. It sounds like they skipped that part.

Smithwick said he asked if he could videotape officers while they search his home and was told no.

"The sergeant became extremely hostile. His response was, 'Are you serious? I'll handcuff you and detain you in that chair,'" Smithwick said. "They were convinced I had a marijuana garden in here and had just gotten rid of it."

So a guy who is not under arrest and standing inside his own home can't videotape the police while they search for evidence to use against him?  I think otherwise.  In fact, I think Mr. Smithwick would be a poster child for the claim that he has a Constitutional Due Process right to videotape this search as a way of preserving evidence that may be useful in his defense. 

Smithwick said when police found no marijuana they threatened to arrest him for having equipment and materials that could be used to grow pot.

'The sergeant told me based on (the) fertilizers and the lights in the room, I could be charged with manufacturing marijuana and held without bond and sent to prison," Smithwick said.

Uh, no.  Fertilizer isn't a crime.  Grow lights aren't a crime.  Fertilizer and grow lights together aren't a crime.  Even if he was planning on growing marijuana next week, Georgia courts are clear that "preparing to commit a crime isn't a crime."  Purchasing gasoline isn't arson, even if that's why you're purchasing the gasoline.

Smithwick said the threats and intimidation by investigators amounted to harassment.

When the don't have, you know, actual evidence of a crime, threats and intimidation are all they have left and that's what they fall back on.

"As a member of this community, a taxpayer and a voter, I think I deserve some answers," Smithwick said.

We all do, Mr. Smithwick, but don't expect to get them.  Enjoy your bananas.

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