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Don’t Assume What You See on TV Is True: Misconceptions In Criminal Law

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the July 5, 2011 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

With all of the recent publicity locally surrounding the Richard Poplawski trial and ensuing death penalty and nationally with the Casey Anthony trial, many people are starting to question their understanding of exactly how the criminal justice system plays out and how it is quite different from the system we see on TV.

Below are some common misconceptions, and the actual reality of what happens when someone is arrested and charged with a crime.

An officer has come to see me and is asking me questions pertaining to an investigation. Do I have to talk to him?

Keep in mind that you don’t know whether you are being questioned as a witness or a suspect, and the investigator may not know either.
That being said, the investigator does not always have to read you your Miranda rights, and you should not consent to the questioning.
Ask if you are a suspect; ask if you are free to go; ask if you are free to not answer the questions; ask for a lawyer.
Remember that it is the investigator’s job to get enough information to support probable cause for an arrest warrant or a criminal complaint so that an arrest can be made.

What are Miranda warnings and when do they have to be given? I thought the police always had to "read me my rights."

Under the Miranda Rule, if you are in police custody you must be informed of specific constitutional rights before interrogation begins. Those rights are as follows:

  1. The right to remain silent
  2. The right to have an attorney present during questioning
  3. The right to have an attorney appointed if you are unable to afford one

PLEASE KEEP IN MIND that Miranda rights do not have to be read until you are taken into custody. That means that you can be questioned by the police before being taken into custody, and anything you say at that point can be used against you later in court.

Don’t the police always need a warrant to search?

No. There are many situations where police may legally conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant.

Consent searches. If the police ask your permission to search your home, purse, briefcase, or other property, and you agree, the search is considered consensual, and they don't need a warrant.

Searches that accompany an arrest. When a person is placed under arrest, the police may search the person and the immediate surroundings for weapons that might be used to harm the officer. If the person is taken to jail, the police may search to make sure that weapons or contraband are not brought into the jail. (This is called an inventory search.) Inventory searches also frequently involve a search of the arrested person's car (if it is being held by the police) and personal effects on the theory that the police need a precise record of the person's property to avoid claims of theft.

Searches necessary to protect the safety of the public. The police don't need a warrant if they have a reasonable fear that their safety, or that of the public, is in imminent danger.

Searches necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. A police officer does not need to obtain a warrant if he/she has observed illegal items (such as weapons or contraband) and believes that the items will disappear unless the officer takes prompt action. This exception arises most frequently when the police spot contraband or weapons in a car. Because cars are moved so frequently, the officer is justified in searching the entire vehicle, including the trunk, without obtaining a warrant.

"Hot pursuit" searches. Police may enter private dwellings to search for criminals who are fleeing the scene of a crime.

Some cases seem so cut and dry and it just seems like the defense attorney is there to make sure the accused isn’t convicted. Why does it seem they’re allowed to manipulate the trial so much?

Again, a common misperception. While there are certainly some circumstances where an attorney is attempting to elicit testimony that shows his client is innocent, in many situations the attorney is questioning a witness to ensure that he/she has done his/her job as he/she should have and that the system is working properly. Granted, he/she may be representing someone who is morally reprehensible – but then it is even more necessary for that person to be arrested, tried, and convicted according to our specific standards of a fair trial.

I am a victim of a crime with three co-defendants. One has already taken a plea deal, but the other two seem to be taking so long to resolve. It’s been three months. How long do I have to wait?

Probably the most frustrating for both crime victims and for those accused, is the speed at which criminal proceedings progress. While on TV most crime dramas play out in an hour, in reality is may take months to years for a case to come to trial and even once the trial has concluded, it could take years, even decades before all of the appeals processes have been flushed out. Again, while it may be frustrating, it is best to ensure that things are done correctly the first time, rather than have to go back and reinvent the wheel to ensure someone receives a fair trial. Look at the Poplawski case for example, which seems a simple case. There is a single defendant, no search for a suspect, no search for weapons and no delayed discovery of the victim. The killings took place in April of 2009 and a final sentence was handed down in June of 2011- over two years later.

With all of the scientific and forensic evidence available now, it seems that in most cases a conviction should be pretty much guaranteed. Isn’t that correct?

Again, reality is quite different from what is portrayed in the media. Good reliable DNA evidence is not always available in all cases. Furthermore, even if it is, the technology used on crime shows is generally available, but it is EXPENSIVE. Many times particularly in smaller jurisdictions, the budgets simply do not exist.

Another problem may arise from our being oversaturated with scientific evidence as well. Some prosecutors have indicated that because the general public sees forensic and scientific evidence on a regular basis, they expect to see it in a criminal case, and if they don’t, they automatically assume the police and the prosecution have a shaky case. Again, this type of evidence is not always available. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean a case is necessarily flawed.

Again, keep in mind, portrayals on TV and exaggerated media coverage often taint the reality of the criminal justice system. Speak with an actual practitioner to determine a more accurate account.

As always, for a referral to an attorney practicing criminal defense, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555 or visit our website at www.acbalrs.org.