Prime Time is Crime Time
During the week, one can watch an incredible number of crime-themed television shows. Just on the major networks during prime time, a coach potato with a DVR can view Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, NCIS, The Mentalist, Fringe, Criminal Minds, Life on Mars, Lie to Me, Bones, Numb3rs, Cold Case, Cops, and America’s Most Wanted. There are also highly rated cable shows like The Closer and Monk. Not too long ago, the greatest crime show of them all, The Wire, ended. A decent number of these shows are watched by law students on a regular basis. There are also scores of crime-related movies that students have viewed.
One of my the things I like most about teaching Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure is that students often come into the class filled with opinions and “knowledge” about the two subjects from popular culture. That background makes for very lively discussions and even students who have no interest in criminal law often have strong opinions about the subject. I can also tap into that knowledge base by using television and movie examples, including using movie clips during class. However, the downside of all of that cultural baggage is that I often have to account for all of the bits of misinformation that my students might have.
Lately, I have been wondering if the problems associated with that misinformation have been growing. Once upon a time, the show Law & Order cited real New York cases and discussed legal issues in a way that was at least connected to reality. Perhaps based upon those fond memories, I still have the show on my DVR schedule despite the fact that it has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. The same week that I was teaching the first day of mens rea, I sat down to watch a few Law & Order episodes that I had recorded. In one episode, the defense made a bizarre suppression motion which was granted. After the suppression motion was granted, the defense moved for dismissal on the grounds that there was no remaining evidence of motive. Astoundingly, the motion was granted with prejudice. So, as I am going to teach my class that motive is not an element of the crime and that motive is different than mens rea, television is sending a very different message.
I’m not hoping for something even close to approximating perfection in terms of legal accuracy from television. However, I wonder if these shows are even employing lawyers as consultants anymore. The way criminal law is being portrayed is often so far removed from reality that I cannot even guess at what strange ideas my students are hearing. I’m guessing this phenomenon is unique to criminal law, but I’d be interested to hear if teachers in other areas have similar problems. And I’m curious to see if other professors teaching Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure have observed any increase in legal inaccuracies in popular culture or among their students.