10 Police Myths You Probably Still Believe

10 Police Myths You Probably Still Believe

You Have the Right to Remain Silent…or Do You?

1. Police and Jurisdiction

Photo Credit: Matthew Zalewski via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: Matthew Zalewski via Wiki Commons

In this case, jurisdiction refers to the area where law enforcement officials have the authority to make arrests. As seen in movies, criminals who manage to get out of their pursuer’s jurisdiction immediately become completely untouchable. So what about in real life? Well, it’s a bit tricky since there are so many different law enforcement departments – local police have different jurisdiction compared to the sheriff’s department or state police or any federal agency. And the laws also differ from state to state so what may apply in one place doesn’t necessarily hold in another. So, if you’re a criminal trying to use the ol’ “Out of your jurisdiction” trick, you’ll want to make sure you know exactly who is trying to catch you.

Even so, it might not matter because in reality cops don’t become powerless as soon as a criminal evades their jurisdiction. In certain states, city police are simply allowed to make arrests anywhere in the state. It is also possible for law enforcement agencies to have cross-jurisdictional agreements with each other which allow them to act with authority in each other’s jurisdiction. An arrest warrant typically also gives an officer the authority to arrest a criminal anywhere in that state. Last, but not least, if an officer is in pursuit of a suspected criminal, they are still allowed to catch them and place them under arrest even out of their jurisdiction.

2. Police and Miranda Rights

Ok, so trying to get out of a cop’s jurisdiction didn’t work and now you are being arrested. But good news, everyone! The arresting officer forgot to read you your Miranda rights which means you can get off on a technicality, right? We all know the speech. We heard it in every movie arrest ever made – “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you in a court of law” etc, etc, etc.

These are, in fact, known as the Miranda rights, established in 1966. There are five in total, two of them mentioned above (the others are about the right to a lawyer). And, indeed, you must be made aware of them…while in custody…during interrogation. Not when you are being arrested. So cops don’t have to recite the rights like a little poem every time they arrest someone otherwise that person goes free. They only have to explain these rights to the suspect at the precinct before they can question them.

3. Your Right to a Phone Call

Cary Grant_Hepburn_Bringing_up_baby

According to movie rules, if you are arrested, you have the right to one phone call…no more, no less. It’s catchy and easy to remember so it works for Hollywood. However, in reality, there are more variables at play here. Short answer is that the number of phone calls depends on where you are arrested. In Illinois, for example, you do get one phone call after being arrested, while in Northern California you get 3 calls within 3 hours. You’ll get at least one phone call in most jurisdictions, but not all of them so don’t simply assume it’s your right. Even if you don’t have the right to one, most police will still let you make a call if you don’t act like a jerk. Some jurisdictions specify a “reasonable number” of phone calls and how reasonable that number might be will be decided by the police so, again, don’t be a jerk.

Access to a phone call can also be restricted by the crime you are accused of. If you are drunk or high or violent then your phone call might be postponed until a time when you are able (and willing) to use it more efficiently. And, in most cases, don’t assume you can call just anyone. Typically, the phone call is used to secure legal representation or bail for yourself or calling a friend or family member so they could do that for you.

4. Missing Persons and the 24-Hour Wait

Let’s get straight to the point: you do not have to wait 24 hours before reporting that someone is missing. Not in America, not in Canada, not in the UK and not in Australia and probably nowhere else in the world. In fact, police encourage you to report that person as soon as possible, especially if there is sign of violence or forceful removal. At the same time, though, it also needs to be mentioned that being missing is not a crime. In many cases, the people who go missing want to be missing and are not taken forcefully (especially in the case of adults). So even if that person is found, the police cannot return them to wherever they left from against their will or even tell their friends and family where that person is. All they can do is to tell whoever filed the Missing Persons report that the person in question had been found and the case is closed.

5. The Last Meal

Photo Credit: Matt via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: Matt via Wiki Commons

So a prisoner about to be executed can have anything they want as their last meal, right? Well, no. Again, it depends on where they are as states have varying policies. Some states have no policy – the inmate gets the same food as everyone else that day. Other states have a certain budget they won’t exceed for a last meal while most states specify that the meal can be whatever they can prepare on site. As a bonus fact, here is what some notorious criminals wanted as their last meals.

6. Bulletproof Car Doors

Bullets in movies are really wimpy because once you duck and cover behind almost any object, that object immediately becomes bulletproof. One of the most common items used in this regard is a car door. Whenever there’s a shootout, you’ll see someone take cover behind a door and it works perfectly every time.

Right off the bat, regular car doors are not bulletproof. However, most shootouts involve police officers so surely their cars have bulletproof doors, right? No, not really. It is possible for certain police issue vehicles to have bulletproof doors (like this Ford Interceptor), but they are available as an option. Oftentimes, they are an option which is not selected because it would be too costly to equip every police car with bulletproof doors since most of them will not be shot at.

7. Undercover Cops and Entrapment

Navy sting operation

So you’re planning a sting operation and one of your men is going undercover. He approaches the prostitute/drug dealer/random criminal and makes inquiries pertaining to their criminal activity of choice. They look willing to cooperate and your officers are all getting ready to move in for the bust when, suddenly, the criminal asks that woeful question: “Are you a cop?” Your undercover agent puts on a defeated expression, lets out a huge sigh and replies “Yes”…because that’s the law, right?

This is absolute nonsense. It might have made a few appearances in movies, but the idea that all undercover agents must identify themselves as cops if asked is completely ridiculous. If it were true, no sting operation in history would be successful because even the most idiotic of criminals can still remember to ask the magic question.

The idea behind this tale is the idea that cops must answer truthfully to this question otherwise it is considered entrapment. And it’s not true. The police are conducting a serious criminal investigation, not playing Truth or Dare. They can lie without being entrapment. Entrapment comes into play when the undercover agents are actively encouraging or coercing people to do something illegal that they would not do otherwise and then arresting them for it.

8. Tracing a phone call

So the bad guy calls the cops. They don’t know where he is, but if they can keep him talking long enough, they can maybe get a location. But how long does he need to stay on the line? Well, Hollywood typically goes for 60 seconds. Why? Because it creates a good, tense scene which isn’t too long or too short. And, in fairness, it might have been valid 40 years ago. But not today. If you call the police they can identify you immediately. And this is true for landlines and for mobile phones ever since the FCC started requiring cell phone networks to have location-tracking technology specifically for this very purpose.

There is only one scenario where reality is somewhat similar to Hollywood fiction – using a stolen or a one-time-use phone. Calling the police gives them instant access to information regarding that phone call – telephone number, telephone owner, address etc. However, when they’re using a stolen or disposable phone, the police still have to triangulate the physical position of the caller by bouncing the signal off cell phone towers. Still, this method is accurate enough to minimize the search area to a small neighborhood.

9. Using the Insanity Plea

Photo Credit: Tess Gruenberg via Wiki Commons

Photo Credit: Tess Gruenberg via Wiki Commons

The insanity defense is a criminal’s best friend, right? You can commit any atrocity you want then plead insane and you just get committed for a few years in a cushy mental hospital or even get declared not guilty, right? No, not really. The truth is that the guidelines concerning the insanity plea have always been pretty vague so it’s hard to establish a standard procedure in these cases. Most of the times it’s up to the jury to decide.

A distinction must be made between “not guilty by reason of insanity” and “diminished capacity” since people oftentimes get the two mixed up. Both of them allude to the defendant’s mental capabilities as they relate to the crime in question. However, while the former argues that the defendant’s mental status absolves them of any wrongdoing (not guilty), the latter merely asserts that the defendant is guilty of a lesser crime. And, truth be told, the insanity plea is actually rarely used in court (and even more rarely successful) and in certain states it is banned outright.

10. Officers Involved in Police Shootings

So a cop was involved in a (legit) shooting. If this were the movies, he would get his “ass chewed out” by his captain, get called a “loose cannon” or something and be right back on the streets chasing bad guys. That might work for Dirty Harry, but not for real cops. Even if the shooting was completely justified, there is a whole lot of procedure and red tape that follows.

These get left out of movies because paperwork and internal investigations don’t make for exciting TV, but, for starters, the officer involved in the shooting gets placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Here are just some of the groups that get involved afterwards: Homicide Unit, Crime Scene Unit, Internal Affairs, City Attorney’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, Office of the Independent Police Auditor and the Bureau of Investigations. What follows are separate investigations by Internal Affairs and the Independent Police Auditor plus inspection by the Shooting Review Panel to make sure that the incident was according to procedure.



Featured image courtesy of Eddy Van 3000 via Flickr.