television hollywood law

Lights, Camera, Action

One of the many cliche reasons to why people love watching movies is that it encourages escapism. For two hours, people are able to forget about their everyday routine and worries, and live in the experiences of fictional people and creatures. To be able to believe in stories that do not exist, audience members must suspend their belief for two hours and accept that the film’s universe may not make the most sense. But it becomes a problem when the picture on the silver screen is supposed to represent a real aspect of our society today, such as the legal system.

While many sci-fi films consult real physicists to make sure that characters are not describing absolutely false facts about space and time travel, this is not the case for movies and television shows about the law. These characters make illegal decisions and even make up certain laws:

“You got one call, son. Make it a good one.”

The “one phone call” rule in every arrest scene is merely a Hollywood invention. It just doesn’t exist. Some jails have payphones, but everyone who is arrested is entitled to as many phone calls as they want. As long as the person on the receiving line agrees to pay for it, you can call all your family members and friends if you wanted! If you ever find yourself watching a movie in which a middle-aged man hits rock bottom, finds himself in jail, and can only call one person to bail him out, please remember that the “one phone call” rule was created by some screenwriters with writer’s block to keep the movie going!

In a courtroom, orange is not the new black

Picture a courtroom scene from a movie or TV show. What is the defendant wearing? If you imagined him or her in an orange jumpsuit, that scenario is highly unlikely. An outfit like that with their hands chained to their sides will definitely bias the jury to think that the individual is a convict, even though he or she hasn’t been convicted of anything yet. That’s why they’re in court! The Supreme Court even ruled in Estelle v. Williams (1976) that “the State may not compel a defendant to appear for trial before a jury in identifiable prison or jail clothing.” A prisoner may choose to dress that way, but no one can prevent the defendant from dressing in normal civilian clothing.

Chill. Copies of official documents are just fine.

In the film, Changing Lanes, Ben Affleck leaves the official documents in a taxicab that will give him control over the foundation of his law firm. He FREAKS out, thinking that only official documents are admissible in court. In reality, that is absolutely not the case, because courts are aware that this world has fires, pets, sloppy interns, and other forces that can easily destroy and lose pieces of paper. Rule 1003 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states that “a duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original unless a genuine question is raised about the original’s authenticity or the circumstances make it unfair to admit the duplicate.” So the lesson here is: keep calm, and photocopy every document you own.

No one wants a dramatic lawyer

In Hollywood, the law is a lot more lively than in real life. Screenwriters will plan courtroom scenes so that the Harvey Spector’s and Alicia Florrick’s of television and movies angrily pace up and down the courtroom, intimidate the witnesses at the stand, and start an argument with the opposing counsel. In reality, however, lawyers are more restrained and calm when defending their clients. Judges control all aspects of the courtroom, even the attitudes of those in it during a trial. That is why, the judge has the power to throw out anyone, including lawyers, if they move too much around the room without permission, get into heated arguments with one another, address the opposing counsel, or “object” to the opposing argument for reasons that are not for flaws in the legal reasoning.

These are only four of the many ways Hollywood has misrepresented the legal system. Forget the fast-paced timeline of Law and Order: SVU and the intense performance put on by Jim Carrey’s character in Liar, Liar. Everything that keeps your attention on these films and TV shows is just a way to make the legal system entertaining. So, if you ever find yourself dealing with the law as a lawyer, judge, juror, or any other person that belongs in a courtroom, don’t expect too much from your experience.