Most of the ways in which criminal law and procedure are practiced on television have very little to do with what actually happens, or even what is actually correct. Part of this comes from the fact that it’s hard to shoehorn the process accurately into a drama script that only has 44 minutes to create a problem, build suspense, grow interest in the central characters, and solve the problem in a neat package (or leave the audience with an existential puzzle to worry over). For example, the stunning nature and pace of the revelations of the truth in “Rizzoli & Isles” would require a sixth sense beyond even what the heroes in “Psych” use to help solve their crimes. The procedure in “Criminal Minds” and “The Blacklist” hides behind the audacity of the plot lines and the gory denouements, so that viewers have changed the channels before they realize how shoddy the whole criminal law establishment appears to work in those representations of reality.
The criticisms of criminal procedure on television fall flat, though, when you sit down to watch an episode of HBO’s crime drama “The Wire.” The realistic portrayals of criminal law and procedure, as well as the social implications of the decisions that take place in the criminal justice system, mean that students of criminal procedure have a lot to learn from this show. For example:
1. When you’re sitting in a law school classroom learning about what the Fourth and Fifth Amendment say about criminal procedure, you don’t necessarily get a window on how the law works on the streets. The interactions between police and criminals, as well as the legal wrangling behind the scenes, fairly accurately describes what happens in reality.
2. Knowing the law doesn’t provide enough insight about the way that police officers and prosecutors influence the lives of others with their decisions. In your criminal procedure classes, you learn that informants can be useful in showing probable cause. However, informants often receive reductions to their charges and sentences that make providing information extremely attractive. This leads to some gargantuan ethical dilemmas that do not always come up in the classroom.
3. To a criminal law student, the crime of possessing controlled substances might seem fairly simple. When you read about it in the paper, after all, it’s usually in a glove compartment, a trunk, or somewhere on the person. However, there are quite a few questions that arise from watching “The Wire” that are worth considering. Consider the open-air drug bazaars that so frequently appear on the show. Is there a matter of constructive possession that those making a raid on the place wouldn’t see? If you’ve diluted your cocaine with baking powder, how should the police department decide to weigh the drugs? Given that the severity of a drug charge is often based on ounces, this is a crucial question. These are just two possession-related issues that appear in the show.
4. Wiretapping is a device that many crime drama scriptwriters use to tie up loose ends in plot lines. However, the law is very specific about the fact that police must keep listening to a minimum and report their ongoing progress to a magistrate. Those requirements often fall by the wayside when a crucial plot point needs elucidation. On “The Wire,” though, the writers clearly portray how difficult it is to get — and keep — permission to wiretap.
Watching “The Wire” doesn’t just teach criminal procedure, of course. It also shows how closely connected the implications of criminal defense law and social science are. What would the social effects of decriminalizing drugs be, for example? The makeup of the prison population would radically change, but so would the tenor of society. These sorts of issues are the larger matters that should always remain within the consciousness of the criminal law student — and the criminal lawyer.
About The Author
Michael D. Leader is a criminal lawyer with Fort Lauderdale law firm Leader & Leader P.A. Specializing in all forms of criminal law, Michael Leader and partner George Leader offer years of legal experience and a commitment to ethics.