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Likeradar's avatar

How legally accurate are shows like "Law and Order"?

Asked by Likeradar (19550 points ) December 12th, 2009

I’m on a “Law and Order: SVU” kick. The boy and I watch episodes together sometimes, and occasionally get into debates about the legality of things the DA/Detectives do, and about the way the show portrays the law.

I know all shows take some creative license, but in general, are these types of shows legally accurate? Is there a legal expert or fact-checker on the writing staff? Or does the show make up how the law works for entertainment?

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11 Answers

bubblegum71's avatar

They are fairly accurate! Good question.

mclaugh's avatar

like @bubblegum71 wrote, they are fairly accurate. most of them have real-life lawyers and cops writing or reviewing the scripts.

HighShaman's avatar

The Law and Order Programs are very accurate as they do have “Legal Consultants” .

However ; they do take a “creative License” here and there for entertainment value…

An example is where people just walk away when being questioned by the police. I’ve nEVER seen that… I wouldn’t even begin to think about walking away when a police officer was questioning me about anything.

Buttonstc's avatar

If you follow the news regularly, the correlation between the episodes of this particular franchise and real-life cases in the news is very high.

I would venture to say that this is more true for any of the Law and Order variants than for other law based series which take much greater liberties with reality for the sake of entertainment. Thinking of a show like Boston Legal. I loved the show and still watch re-runs, but it’s not like I’d be expecting to see accurate portrayals of how the legal system REALLY works.

There have been so many outrageous and downright hilarious episodes on BL that were so over the top. But that’s what made it so much fun. But half the lawyers on that show would certainly have been disbarred if they existed in real life.

For reasonable accuracy, stick to L and O.

DrBill's avatar

They have legal minds on staff to insure accuracy, but remember that if a show takes place in CA for example, they follow their laws, which may not be the law other places.

THEDELLS's avatar

There was an article almost a year ago. They compared all of the crime shows that was on tv or recently on tv (CSI , nypd blue, ny undercover L&O etc) And while Law and Order was one of the most accurate. But The panel of experts ripped it apart too. The overall response was there was glaring issues all tv shows . With all the L&O shows it was the same two things Forensics and Court cases ,the Forensic and scientific evidence, ie Coroner diagnosing things that they would even know, how they collect evidence and how Forensic evidence come back in days not in weeks and how far reaching it was.as opposed to CSI which is scientifically accurate but bends the story to do so. ( “We know it was you john, You have a rare hair condition) Oh the scientist also laugh about the obvious things the characters said on csi.
Back to L&O As far as the courts the lawyers said there would be so many objections to half the stuff said. I don’t remember clearly about police procedures. but The L&O people said they only change things to keep the drama tight and the pace brisk. And L&O got only very high grades from Psychologists -even won an award. and they got Very High Marks for Setting accuracy which I guess in huge for a show set in New York.
BTW The most accurate was a show called Homicide and for all it’s accuracy it was already off when article was written.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

I can’t analyze the police half, but the courtroom half is pretty over theatricalized, and also dumbed down. The “lawyers” on the show often use terms that don’t really mean anything like “badgering” instead of something more precise, such as “leading a witness during direct examination”. And there are a lot of objections that are made under the wrong terms, such as simply saying “prejudicial” instead of the (often better/more winable) objection, “more prejudicial than probative”. They also do really stupid things that real attorneys worth a lick never do, like refer to the defendant as “my client” or shout “withdrawn” every five seconds.

When you say “my client” it reminds the jury that you have a side, and you’re just there to win your case and get paid. As a counselor on either side, you want the jury to see you as in impartial person who’s just there to tell them what happened and let them decide; you don’t want to remind them constantly how biased you really are. As far as shouting “withdrawn” you wouldn’t want to do that, because it looks like you’ve asked a question that you know is inadmissible, so there would be no point in arguing the objection. It looks like you either don’t know what you’re doing as an officer of the court, or that you’re purposefully trying to break the rules of evidence. Those both look very bad to judges.

Probably the most legally inaccurate part of the courtroom side is the endless monologues of counsel testifying, by that I mean lawyers saying things while a witness is on the stand. This is against the rules of evidence, and thus illegal. It is the easiest objection in the world to make and win, and yet no one on those shows EVER does. The lawyers have their chance to talk during opening and closing statements, and other than that, everything they say (besides objections and housekeeping) should be a question. There is absolutely no place for the kind of statements McCoy and the others are always making, like, “You had access to the car. You had the keys to the building. The knife was found in your possession.” blah blah blah. All that is testimony by the lawyer, and it’s all against the rules of evidence.

YARNLADY's avatar

On thing I noticed when I was on a jury is that the dialog in the court room is continuous, one person finishes, another one starts, and so on. In the case I was on, there were very long delays between witnesses, and the lawyers were always reading and talking privately, and it took hours on end for people to walk up to the stand and leave. They were often out in the hall, rather than in the room, so someone had to go and get them.

There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason about who got called and when, so it was all drawn out. What take a few minutes on TV took days in our case. The judges constantly talked to the clerks and recorders and it sounded like chit-chat to me.

clairemagdalenaclaire's avatar

The most accurate shows are the ones they copy from real cases. I’ve seen that many cases I’ve studied reinterpreted by television shows! @Yarnlady, you’re right. I’m doing my masters in law in Australia and it can take weeks or even months for a case to be brought to a hearing or trial. It is a slow and painful process.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

@clairemagdalenaclaire: That sounds fast! I’ve known three different friends to be robbed or mugged in the last few years, and two of them waited 8 months to 1 year before their day in court. The third’s assailants to a plea bargain, and I think that was about a year later as well.

jdrosenfeld's avatar

A lot of the evidentiary rulings are inaccurate too. Every time a defense attorney shows up with a motion to suppress, Jack McCoy acts surprised, and the judge often throws out the evidence based on police malfeasance. In reality, a motion to suppress is de rigeur for a criminal trial, most cops care enough to stay on the (judically defined) correct side of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and very few motions to suppress actually succeed.

It actually drives me kind of nuts to see the judges on the show bite on these motions, since many of them are actually based on police conduct that would not lead to suppression. For example, in last week’s L&O: LA, a judge threw out a search based on the fact that the person’s roommate consented to a search of their shared room. In reality, this would have been a textbook example of a situation in which the roommate had actual authority to consent to the search. However, even if the court decided that the roommate did not have this authority, the court still would have analyzed whether the police reasonably believed that the roommate had the authority; the court would not have just thrown out the evidence.

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