9 Common Misconceptions About Criminal Law

Where do myths about criminal law originate? The short answer is television – a combination of both exaggerated news stories and fictional dramas. Sometimes people confuse TV cop shows as reality. Here are nine common myths about the criminal law system in the United States.

1. Answering Questions from Law Enforcement 

Some people feel they must answer every question that a police officer asks them, but everyone has the right to remain silent. The Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) mandates police must inform a criminal suspect of their rights prior to an interrogation.

2. Fingerprinting Process 

TV shows have portrayed the fingerprinting process as happening within minutes. But the FBI database is so vast that it can take up to 12 months to complete the process. A fingerprint match doesn’t prove guilt, it merely indicates the suspect was present at the crime scene at some point.

3. Right to One Phone Call After an Arrest 

The right to one phone call is another TV myth. Although it may be true in certain states, it’s not part of the U.S. Constitution.

4. You’re Innocent if the Police Lie 

Many people assume if law enforcement officers make dishonest statements it means they will be acquitted. Even though lying to a police officer is a crime, there’s no law that prohibits a police officer from lying to a citizen. Cops may be under oath in court, but not on the field.

5. If No One Presses Charges You’re Safe

Regardless of whether a citizen decides to press charges against others, prosecutors have the final say on who gets charged and for what crimes.

6. Police Need a Search Warrant to Collect Evidence

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, as the government must show reasonable cause. In certain situations, however, police are allowed to conduct searches without a warrant from a judge.

7. You Have a Right to Kick Cops Off Your Private Property 

Many situations exist that allow officers to trespass on private property in order to protect public safety. This means they are allowed to enter homes and buildings in order to detain a suspect.

8. DNA is a Deciding Factor for Guilt 

Despite DNA evidence that O.J. Simpson was at the murder scene of his ex-wife and partner, he was acquitted partly because LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman was documented as making racial slurs, which raised reasonable doubt among jurors.

9. Convictions Require Physical Evidence 

Trials that culminate in convictions tend to be based on physical evidence such as DNA, photography, videos and fingerprints. Forensic evidence is not required when juries believe witness testimony or reports from investigators provide compelling information.

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