Television shows centered on the law have been popular for some time now – the original Law & Order got its start in 1990, CSI premiered a decade later, and the last few years have brought us How To Get Away With Murder, Making A Murderer, and Better Call Saul, a spinoff based on the sleazy lawyer who protects the inventive law breakers on Breaking Bad. Even such legal outsiders as Temperance Brennan, the forensic anthropologist known as Bones, become investigatory experts on these shows.
With such programs dominating the airwaves, many of us assume that we’re more aware of how our legal system works than ever before. Unfortunately, as any lawyer or police force member will inform you, these shows get a lot wrong.
If you’re a legal TV buff, it’s time to go on a fact-finding mission. Here are 3 legal facts you can impress your friends with at your next viewing party.
The DNA Defense
One of the most popular features of crime investigation TV is the search for bodily fluids and DNA evidence. Whether the detectives are swabbing counters or pulling hair from a brush, DNA is often the evidence that closes the case on these programs. Unfortunately, DNA is everywhere. You’ve probably tracked around the DNA from dozens of people just today.
The particular nature of the problem is that we all pick up random bits of DNA on our shoes and clothes when we’re out in the world. That Uber you rode in? Some of the driver’s DNA is likely on your shoes. And if you stepped in someone’s gum on your last walk, you picked up some of theirs as well. Detectives can’t just simply walk into a crime scene, take a few swabs, and close the case.
Furthermore, only a small percentage of criminals are already in DNA databases, so even if the police can pick up some suspicious biological information, they may have nothing to compare it to.
The Advanced Class
How To Get Away With Murder, another hit from the incomparable Shonda Rhimes, stars a cast of law students studying and working under the tutelage of legal rock star Annalise Keating. But in season one, those bumbling law students are lowly 1Ls – the short hand for first year students – and Keating’s course is far more advanced than anything they would be prepared for. Far more likely, these students would be taking a course like Criminal Law 1, introductory material necessary for understanding the advanced problems Keating poses.
Without courses like Criminal Law 1, these students wouldn’t learn basic distinctions like the difference between assault and battery, two common charges. It does seem that they’ve picked up this difference somewhere – one student, Laurel, notes the distinction during a family meal – but that’s the last we hear of it.
Want to impress your friends by showing off some 1L basics? Explain the basic distinction between assault and battery next time your favorite legal show mentions the charge. According to the Monder Law Group, the primary distinction between assault and battery is that battery requires that there be physical contact, while assault does not require any form of contact.
Besides DNA evidence, TV shows have a strong bias towards the power of fingerprinting. But much like DNA, do you know how many fingerprints are on your possessions? Did you hand your credit card to a cashier or use your refillable mug at the coffee shop? Your barista probably left at least partial fingerprints on there, but it doesn’t mean she used it to bludgeon someone.
The other problem with fingerprinting as it’s presented on TV shows is that there are many ways to mess up a fingerprint and make it difficult to obtain. Take guns as an example. Guns are typically considered a great place to get incriminating evidence in these shows, but the handle of a gun is typically textured, a factor that will distort or ruin fingerprints and make them useless in a criminal case.
Crime TV is a lot of fun, but no matter how much you watch, you’re not going to get much in the way of legal education. Rather, to keep the plots moving and fill up the time that real officers and detectives spend waiting for analysis results and filling out paperwork, the shows blur the reality and tie up all the loose ends neatly.
It’s much more satisfying for viewers, but don’t kid yourself about the realism here.