The average American’s knowledge of the law comes from TV and movies, which are more interested in entertaining viewers than in educating them. As a result, people believe and repeat legal myths with even realizing that they are myths. Even what you see on the news is designed to titillate viewers, or is tainted by whatever angle the story is pushing. Today, we debunk some of the more common legal myths.
Everyone Gets One Phone Call
This may be the most common legal myth: Everyone is entitled to one phone call. The facts:
- The United States Constitution does not guarantee you the right to one phone call.
- Even if you are granted a phone call, it does not have to occur immediately after your arrest.
- Every jurisdiction – even within the same state – addresses this in its own way.
Most jurisdictions do allow you to make at least one phone call after an arrest, and in fact allow you to make more than one call. When they allow that call to occur differs, with some jurisdictions requiring you to wait until they begin questioning (so you may call your attorney). Others make you wait until after you’ve been processed, and many jurisdictions allow you to make a variety of phone calls at various times.
Your phone calls may be to an attorney or to find one, your family or employer to explain where you are, to arrange for bail, or to address personal issues such as child or pet care.
An Undercover Police Officer Has to Identify Themselves if Asked
This myth rivals the “one phone call” myth in terms of commonality. It is 100 percent myth, though, which is obvious if you think about it for even a moment. What would be the point of an undercover operation if the officer had to answer “Yes” to the question, “Are you a cop? You have to tell me if you are, you know.”
Undercover officers are, of course, allowed to lie when asked if they are law enforcement. They may even be permitted to violate the law in order to protect their cover identity.
You Can Avoid Prison by Pleading Insanity
The United States Constitution considers it cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who committed a crime without fully understanding that what they did was wrong. The mental competence defense (sometimes called the insanity defense) may be used for defendants with severe mental or behavioral health disorders. It does not, however, bar that defendant from facing the legal consequences of his or her actions.
If found guilty, penalties vary depending on the offense and the defendant’s particular mental health issue. He or she may be convicted of the same crime but simply receive a reduced sentence, such life in prison instead of the death penalty. The defendant may also be committed to a mental institution.
Pleas of temporary insanity are different and typically reserved for what are commonly termed crimes of passion. This defense requires proving that the defendant’s behavior before and after the crime prove that he or she acted without premeditation or criminal intent. Even if proved (very difficult), these pleas typically only reduce the degree of the charge; they don’t serve as a get out of jail free card.
You Can’t be Tried Twice for the Same Crime
Also known as double jeopardy, the Fifth Amendment protects Americans from being tried repeatedly for the same offense. However, even with that constitutional protection, it is possible to be tried two times (or more) for the same crime.
The Fifth Amendment only protects citizens whose initial trial ended in either conviction or acquittal. If there was a mistrial or hung jury, you may face the same charges again (see Mississippi’s Curtis Flowers for a perfect example: as of 2017, he’s been tried six times for the same crime).
In addition, according to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Felix, the government may charge defendants with both a crime and conspiracy to commit that crime, essentially giving prosecutors two chances to earn a conviction for one offense.
Finally, defendants may be tried for the same crime in both federal and state courts without the protection of double jeopardy (known as the separate sovereigns doctrine). This is true even when the defendant is convicted and sentenced in the first court. Two famous examples include the LAPD acquittal in state court and conviction in federal court, for violating Rodney King’s civil rights, and Michael Vick’s conviction in both state and federal court for running a dog-fighting operation, related crimes, and conspiracy to commit those crimes.
No One Confesses to a Crime They Didn’t Commit
Unfortunately, innocent people do, in fact, confess to crimes they did not commit. The reasons are numerous but defendants who undergo harsh or unusually long interrogations seem to be the most susceptible to this. Yet another reason to refuse to answer questions without your attorney being present.
I Wasn’t Read My Rights – My Case Will be Dismissed
Reading you your rights. The right to remain silent. Your Miranda rights. The right to counsel. It goes by many names but it basically means that the arresting officer has to explain your constitutional rights when you are arrested.
You still have those rights even when you haven’t been taken into custody, whether the officer explains them to you or not. However, if the officer fails to read you your Miranda rights, the only result is that anything you say in response to questioning becomes inadmissible in court.
We emphasize in response to questioning because anything you say outside of questioning is fully admissible during your trial, whether the officer read you your rights or not.
Also, failure to explain your rights does not end in dismissal of your case. In fact, the prosecutor and judge may still read your statements during pretrial, even if you weren’t read your Miranda rights. So, exercise your right to remain silent and call your lawyer before answering any questions, whether or not the arresting officer advised you to.
What do you think – did we miss any common criminal law myths? Let us know in the comments and we’ll debunk – or prove! – your favorite legal myth. Liberty Law, Scottsdale Arizona, Criminal Defense, Traffic Ticket Defense, DUI Defense Attorney.