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.

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11 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    I stopped watching the shows because they get so much so badly wrong. And I have no doubt students bring that into school with them. My colleague found the perfect illustration of why students have so many mistaken ideas from a recent L&O: The mistress of an investment adviser who operated a Ponzi scheme (call him Mernie Badoff) is kidnapped by a defrauded investor, who kills her when she tries to escape. The investor’s attorney argues to the jury that the woman would be alive but for Badoff’s fraud; an objection is sustained, and the lawyer returns right to the same argument. The investor is acquitted.

  2. TJ says:

    Some are better than others. For example, Eli Stone actually cited cases by name in situations that were somewhat on point. But as much as lawyers would love when television gets the details right, why would the general public know or care? Is there any difference in whether you learn the real law on L&O as against whether you learn real medicine on ER or Gray’s Anatomy?

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    TJ, could one difference be that TV viewers serve on juries? I seem to recall that law enforcement officers and DAs have complained about how the false expectations set up by CSI-style shows make it harder to obtain convictions; isn’t there a similar danger if jurors get fixated on stuff like motive and other false legalisms? Of course, motive in particular has long been a fixture of TV lawyer shows, but Perry Mason didn’t have the verisimilitude that L&O does.

  4. student says:

    My favorite was a big multi-episode arc on House a season or two ago, where a local detective is finally closing in on House’s abuse of painkillers (oxycodone, I think?). The detective finally catches House red-handed writing out a prescription in the name of a deceased patient, having some pharmacist fill it, and then walking away with the pills.

    On trial for violating the federal Controlled Substances Act, House is about to convicted and locked up when another doctor swoops in to testify that she knew House was going to do this and arranged for the pharmacist to fill the bottle with placebos instead. The judge then rules from the bench that if House didn’t get the actual pills, then he couldn’t have committed the crime, and issues a directed verdict of acquittal on the spot. Apparently this judge never learned, as all 1Ls do, that federal law punishes attempt exactly the same as it does a successful crime…

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    “I’m guessing this phenomenon is unique to criminal law,”

    They get something you know about grossly wrong, and you blithely assume that they’re getting the stuff you’re not so well informed about right?

    Why?

    No, they get everything that wrong.

  6. Hi Brett,

    I’m not assuming that they are getting other areas of law right – I’m assuming that other areas of law are rarely explored on TV. While there are dozens of criminal law shows, I’m not sure that there has ever been a property law show. Some TV shows and movies address civil litigation, but I’m “guessing” that there is nothing in other areas of law resembling the level of misinformation in the criminal sphere. That simply stems from the infrequency of the depiction of other law subjects. I’m happy to hear examples to the contrary from people teaching other subjects or anyone else.

  7. Joe says:

    Corey,

    The rules of evidence are terribly abused in the context of TV lawsuits as well. Think about the daytime TV “courts”. Even educated people tend to assume that those are more or less accurate to how a real court would operate.

  8. joe says:

    Corey,

    The rules of evidence are terribly abused in the context of TV lawsuits as well. Think about the daytime TV “courts”. Even educated people tend to assume that those are more or less accurate to how a real court would operate.

  9. Brett Bellmore says:

    Corey, by “everything”, I scarcely meant just “other areas of law”. I meant, “everything”. Physics, chemistry, history, everything.

    Just keep in mind that the only subject people producing TV and movies are well versed in or care to get right is producing TV and movies.

  10. peter says:

    Brett — I have no doubt that you are absolutely right. I think that when Corey wrote, “I’m guessing this phenomenon is unique to criminal law,” the sense was, “I’m guessing that when legal errors are made on cop shows, the errors relate specifically to criminal law.” It would be surprising indeed if the producers were uniquely more inclined to ignore legal issues than, say, questions about engineering, genomics, or literary history.

  11. A.W. says:

    What, you mean ashely judd misled me? Once convicted of murdering a person, and it turned out they are alive, i CAN’T kill them later and get off scott free? Ah, crap. Well, there goes my weekend plans.

    /silliness

    Btw, Law and Order has gotten better recently. imho.

    And you left out another big legal show: Boston Legal. Which, yes, often deals with crim. law.

    As for watching these shows, my advice to non-lawyers is just assume everything it says about the law is wrong. As for lawyers, I say, just forget everything you know about the law and enjoy the human drama. I mean seriously, how can a person even sit through the legally illiterate ones like Boston Legal, otherwise?