Criminal law: What you see on TV vs. reality

Criminal law: What you see on TV vs. reality

Crime TV has been entertaining us for generations. From the black and white Perry Mason courtroom dramas to the dark and gritty episodes of Law and Order, we’ve been educated on how the criminal justice system works—or have we?

These shows are so engaging and well-written that it’s easy to forget that they only imitate life, they don’t reflect it. The crime, its investigation, and both the arrest and trial of the suspect are packed into a single hour, which is definitely not how the system really operates. As a result, many people charged with criminal offenses in New York State have an incorrect understanding of how crimes are investigated and can unwittingly harm their own cases.

Below is a list of some of the biggest criminal justice system myths that have been inspired by TV and movies.

The police can make a deal with you

We see it all the time on our favorite police drama. During the “good cop / bad cop” routine, police detectives will offer plea deals with minor suspects and accomplices in exchange for incriminating information on the “big guys.” Or the detectives will tell the suspect if he confesses, they will make sure the DA goes easy on him.  The truth is that the police cannot offer these kinds of deals: only prosecutors can. The problem is that many people in custody don’t know this, so they are easily fooled.

A national fingerprint database has everyone’s prints on file

Have you ever noticed that when a fingerprint is found at a CSI Miami or Law and Order – SVU crime scene, its owner is located almost instantly? Theoretically, this can happen: there are approximately 100,000,000 fingerprints in AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). However, this accounts for only 30% of all people residing in the United States. It’s hardly likely that every fingerprint found by police investigators will yield a match.

Everyone’s DNA is stored in a central database

Like fingerprints, after DNA samples are collected at a TV crime scene, they are run through a national database and often instantly identify a suspect. This certainly doesn’t reflect reality. CODIS, which is the DNA database, has less than 10,000,000 samples, so the chances of a match are only about one in 30.

If you are arrested, don’t take chances based on what you think you know about the criminal justice system. Contact a New York criminal defense attorney who will advise you of your rights, protect you from accidental self-incrimination, and ensure that you receive as fair an outcome as possible. Julie Rendelman is a criminal defense attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. She knows the New York criminal defense system inside and out, having worked as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. For a free consultation, call 212-951-1232. Visit to learn more about how The Law Offices of Julie Rendelman, LLC can help you.