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10 Popular Myths about the American Justice System

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Many people, whether American or not, believe they have a pretty good idea of how the American justice system works. After all, the USA is one of the biggest producers of television and they have made countless detective shows and crime procedurals. However, the truth is that even the shows meant to be more based in reality use a lot of creative license and don’t necessarily give you anything close to an accurate picture of what things are actually like.

So this list delves more into ten popular myths about the American justice system.

Related: Top 10 Mind-Blowing Crimes That Beggar Belief

10 Myth: Prisoners Are Protected and Can’t Be Used for Forced Labor

Prison Labor: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Most people believe that slavery, along with all forced labor, was outlawed when the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. The Emancipation Proclamation was just the start, and the amendment finished things off. However, there is an unfortunate clause in the amendment that some people call the exception clause. This clause says that no one shall be used for any kind of involuntary labor unless they were convicted of a crime, in which case it is okay.

This has greatly affected the United States prison system, as many prisons use prisoners for labor and pay them pennies on the dollar for their work. Sometimes the work is voluntary, and sometimes it is not. A handful of states have banned all slavery with no exception, and a few years ago, Colorado joined that group.

However, there are reports that some prisoners are still being coerced against their will into labor and punished when they ask to not work for free or cheap. Many human rights groups believe the amendment needs to be altered to avoid abuse, and others say that that ship has already long sailed.[1]

9 Myth: Police Are Not Legally Allowed to Lie to You

LIES the POLICE Use to Manipulate You

There are levels to this myth and multiple versions. One of the most popular versions is that if you ask an undercover officer if he is a cop, he has to tell you the truth. This myth has partly survived because many criminals will ask someone if they are a cop, not because cops have to tell the truth, but to gauge their reaction—and this behavior has passed on to TV and Hollywood.

Of course, such a policy would simply get undercover officers constantly killed and unable to do their jobs, so it is not true. Furthermore, police officers can and do lie to you about all kinds of things. When the police are questioning someone they believe committed a crime, they can and often do tell all sorts of lies.

Some of the most common lies they tell include telling you they have evidence against you that they haven’t yet acquired, telling you that you are or are not being recorded when it isn’t true, offering you food or drink so they can get your DNA, and many others. The truth is there is only one thing they cannot lie to you about: your actual legal rights and how you may exercise them.[2]

8 Myth: It Is More Expensive to Keep Murderers Alive Than Use the Death Penalty

Comparing the costs between the death penalty vs. life in prison

The death penalty is one of the most controversial policies in the entire world. Many countries are now moving to ban it, and it is becoming less and less common in the United States of America.

Many people are against it simply because they feel it is barbaric and isn’t going to bring back lives. They also argue that the death penalty has not been proven in any way to discourage murders from happening. However, even if you feel that the death penalty isn’t so bad in terms of the practice itself, there are financial concerns that make it a problem.

Many people assume that life in prison must be way more costly because of all the yearly expenses of keeping someone alive. Others understand that the death penalty is much more expensive, but they are convinced that it is because of our appeals system. Those who know this sometimes argue we just need to make it harder to appeal death penalty convictions. However, this is also a misconception.

The truth is that what makes death penalty cases so expensive is the trial itself, not the appeals. Before you get to appeals, you need two trials, one to convict and one to decide if the death penalty is appropriate. These cases drain prosecutor resources more than any other case.[3]

7 Myth: You Have a Right to One Phone Call When Arrested

Are You Really Entitled to a Phone Call When Arrested?

One of the biggest myths of the American justice system—believed all over the world due to movies and television—is that when you are arrested, you have the right to one phone call. This has been used for countless plot points, with the person usually calling someone who isn’t their lawyer to pull some shenanigans and get out of their situation.

Many people are so convinced of this that they get really confused and upset when they end up in custody and their alleged right isn’t honored. The unfortunate truth, however, is that this is almost entirely a myth. Americans do not have any special right to a phone call enumerated in the Constitution. Rather, Americans do have the right to legal counsel once they are going to be questioned or charged, but then and only then.

This means that even if all you want to do is call your lawyer, the police do not necessarily have to allow you to do so until they are getting ready to interview you. Now, possibly due to the misconception, many states or localities have laws that will enable you to make a certain number of phone calls to friends or family, but it is not a legal right.[4]

6 Myth: Police Interrogators Can Tell if You Are Lying from Body Language

Former FBI Agent Explains How to Detect Lying & Deception | Tradecraft | WIRED

This is one of the biggest myths in the world of law enforcement, and not just in the United States. Many around the world believe that if you can learn body language, you can spot a liar lying to you. Many law enforcement officers particularly take pride in their ability to read body language and spot the universal signs of deception. This is backed up by psychological folklore that has been reinforced by movies, telling us if we just understand the right tricks, no one will ever fool us again.

However, the truth is that multiple reviews of scores of studies have all come to the same conclusion: There are no universal signs of deception, at least not that we have yet identified. Now, you might imagine that at least police officers who are trained in body language might be a little better at sussing out lies than the general population, but the studies don’t back that up either.

Even with their instinct and experience, they didn’t score better than the general population when tested on their ability to suss out deception. There was only one group tested that did better than the general population at detecting lies, and only slightly better—the United States Secret Service.[5]

5 Myth: Criminal Courtroom Trials Are Common in the USA

What happened to trial by jury? – Suja A. Thomas

This has been dramatically reinforced by court dramas and other TV shows that constantly show criminal trials. The drama is always wild, with courtroom outbursts and everything on the line for the defendant, who is usually facing a very long prison sentence. For this reason, many people are surprised when they are called to court and find that engaging in an actual trial is the last thing that the court—or their lawyer—actually wants to have happen.

The truth is that trials are expensive, as we mentioned earlier about the death penalty, and the state, whether it is an individual state or the federal government, doesn’t want to pay for it. Many people realize they will probably get a worse deal if they go to trial, as they might lose completely and get a harsh sentence, so they take a deal instead. Their lawyer wants this, too, as it could hurt their reputation if they lose, but it makes them look good if they got their client a good deal.

The truth is that depending on the state, anywhere from less than 5 to 10% of cases go to trial. When it comes to the United States Federal government, trials are so rare there have been recent years where the number of cases that went to trial was less than 3%.[6]

4 Myth: Crime, Especially Violent Crime, Is on the Rise in the States

New FBI data shows crime rates have decreased in 2023

There is a common belief today among many Americans that crime is on the rise, and we better do something fast if we want to get a handle on it. Some pull out the racist dog whistles, blaming illegal immigration, and others claim that Democrats are just lax on security and police are kneecapped after BLM and cannot do their jobs. This belief is so widespread that a Gallup poll last year found that 77% of the overall country thinks the crime rate is rising. While Republicans believe it more, about 50% of Democrats believe it as well.

However, the evidence that we have to date does not back this up. A recent report from the FBI for 2023 found that crime rates in the U.S. dropped significantly that year. Violent crime has dropped by 8%, and property crime has fallen by 6%, which is the biggest reduction since 1961. Even better, murder rates, in particular, have plummeted more than almost any other year on record.

The fact of the matter is that in 2021, the Justice Department felt that they were seeing issues with rising crime and put together a series of initiatives to combat it. These initiatives are working, and the U.S. should stay the course.[7]

3 Myth: The Insanity Plea Can Save You From Being Locked Up

Ask 10: How do insanity pleas work?

The insanity plea is one of the oldest myths in the book, but it just won’t go away. It has been used in countless movies and TV shows as a plot point for a bad guy trying to get away with a crime by acting crazy. He will wear funny clothes, start saying strange things, and be as eccentric as possible. This is all in the hopes of getting off on an insanity plea and walking away scot-free.

While a lot of people figure you need to be more insane than that to have a successful plea and that it would be hard to fake, they may be surprised that it seldom actually happens at all. And we don’t just mean it rarely works; we mean it is almost never attempted.

The reason for this is that lawyers know it isn’t really a good idea. Unless you are hoping to avoid the death penalty, a successful plea will just get your client indefinitely locked up in a maximum-security psychological facility. Considering that insanity pleas are used in less than 1% of cases and only work about a quarter of the time when used, it becomes a really silly prospect in most cases to even try.[8]

2 Myth: Police Use of Drug Sniffing Dogs to Search Your Car Is Settled Law

Consent to Search & Drug Dogs | “If you don’t consent, we’ll just get the drug dog”

We have all seen it on TV or in movies, and some of us have lived it. The officer pulls a person over for a traffic stop, and then, before they know it, things have escalated, and the officer has brought in a drug-sniffing dog. The dog will alert to the drugs inside, the officers will search and find the bullion, and the jig is up for the unhappy citizen. Many people consider this to be settled law and just think it stinks and there isn’t much they can do about it.

However, the truth is that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that unless the officer has probable cause, he cannot just search a vehicle with a dog, as it is a Fourth Amendment violation of your right to privacy. So, what counts as probable cause? Well, that isn’t entirely clear on a federal basis right now, but the winds are shifting in the U.S. very quickly.

Connecticut has recently banned marijuana sniffs as being probable cause, and Minnesota banned them as well for an interesting reason. The ruling was that because hemp is now legal and smells like weed, the smell of weed is not probable cause for a search. If this becomes a national precedent, officers will find it much harder to search people’s cars without their permission.[9]

1 Myth: Lie Detector Tests Are a Great Tool for Law Enforcement

The Real Reason Police Use Lie Detectors – Cheddar Explains

We all know the lie detector test, also known as the polygraph, even if we have never been near one. Someone is given control questions to see how they react, and then they are asked the questions the officers want to detect a lie for. If the person is lying, we see the polygraph needle wildly drawing on the paper as they talk, telling us the criminal in this courtroom drama is not telling the truth.

However, while many law enforcement officials still use it for various reasons, and it is sometimes used in job screenings, it isn’t as important or reliable as you might think. The truth is that polygraph tests are not admissible in a court of law in the United States. Some states allow them if both parties agree, but many states do not even allow that, as they just consider the entire thing to be too suspect.

This is because they just aren’t accurate enough to be sure in cases of criminal law. The American Psychological Association has gone over studies of polygraphs, and the conclusion is that they are slightly better than random chance but have too many errors to use in court. They also add the test is hard to scientifically assess in the first place, making the issue even more murky.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen