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TV Shows & Internet – Not Reality When It Comes To The Law

David J. Shrager was quoted in a Pittsburgh Tribune Review article about how TV shows and the Internet perpetuate myths about the law. Read the article below.

TV shows, Internet perpetuate myths about facets of law

By Brian Bowling
Sunday, July 6, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

The phrase “You have the right to remain silent” has accompanied most arrests on television and in the movies during the past four decades.

In real life, not so much.

The Miranda warning, named for the 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona, is only required when police want to question someone they have in custody.

An arrest isn’t necessarily illegal because the arresting officers didn’t give the warning. Its popularity in police shows and movies has made it one of the most misunderstood facets of the law, several legal experts said.
“The Miranda one always gets me,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a St. Vincent College law professor and former federal prosecutor. “That, somehow, Miranda is the magic word that makes the arrest OK.”

Starting with police dramas such as “Dragnet” in the 1950s, television has established urban legends about the law that most people unwittingly accept as fact, he said.

“It’s ‘Barney Miller’ law,” said criminal defense attorney David J. Shrager, referring to the popular 1970s TV sitcom that revolved around a Greenwich Village police station.

What people think they know about the law often is wrong, several legal experts said, and people are increasingly getting bad legal advice off the Internet.

Take the “one phone call,” for example.

“There’s no constitutional right to a phone call,” criminal defense attorney Martin Dietz said. “Very few lawyers have been called by their clients from the police station.”

A more recent example is the expectation raised by the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” shows that a prosecution will involve DNA and forensic science. The lack of such evidence often leads defendants to believe the government can’t get a conviction, Shrager said.

“That’s one that we deal with a lot,” he said.

A significant part of his practice is “deprogramming” clients who walk into his office primed with information gleaned online.

“I wish it was as simple as looking it up on the Internet, but it’s not,” Shrager said. “It’s complex. The legal system is lumbering and slow, and you really have to know the ins and outs to get the result you want.”

Another prevalent myth is that criminal cases get thrown out on “technicalities.”

“There are people who may think that that’s how the system works and, obviously, nothing is further from the truth,” Antkowiak said. “What most people would call technicalities, most courts would describe as serious constitutional violations.”

The courts have procedures for handling misspelled names, wrong addresses, typographical errors and other technical problems. They even have procedures for salvaging cases with bad arrests and invalid search warrants, he said.

The loss of evidence because of an illegal search or the loss of a confession because of an officer failing to give a Miranda warning might lead a prosecutor to drop a case, but prosecutions often move ahead and succeed on other evidence, Antkowiak said.

A frequent misconception comes up in felony murder cases, said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz.

On the civil side, a frequent misconception comes from people believing that something makes them lawsuit-proof, Ledewitz said.

“When I tell people they’re in the right, they think that means they can’t be sued,” he said. “It doesn’t — it means, they’ll win.”

Though winning a lawsuit is better than losing one, it’s rare that the winners can recover their legal costs so “being sued and winning is no gift,” Ledewitz said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Read more here.