10 Popular Legal Myths

Most adults think they have a pretty good grasp of legal fundamentals. But the truth is there are a number of myths regarding the law that have been swirling around so long they’ve become accepted by many as fact when they are actually anything but.

Below we’re going to take a stroll through the Wonderland of legal misunderstanding and see if we can’t lay some of these myths to rest beside the flat earth theory.

1: You Must Respond if A Police Officer Asks You a Question

While it is a crime to provide false or misleading information to the police you are under no obligation to respond if you encounter a police officer who begins to ask you questions.

The only exception is that in some states you are obligated to respond if a police officer asks you to identify yourself. Even then the officer in question must have reason to suspect you have committed a crime, are committing a crime or are about to commit a crime.

2: The Police Must Read You Your Miranda Rights

The concept of Miranda rights arose out of the case of Miranda v Arizona when the Supreme Court ruled that police were obligated to inform a person of their rights if they were taking them into custody and intended to ask them questions.

That means if your encounter with the police – no matter how unpleasant – does not end in your arrest, or if you are arrested but the police have no intention of interrogating you (as often happens with demonstrators for instance), they are under no obligation to read you your Miranda rights.

3: You Have a Constitutional Right to Make a Phone Call

As there were no telephones at the time the Bill of Rights was drawn up it’s unreasonable to assume there is a constitutional right to use such a device. And in fact, there isn’t. Some states, however, have adopted laws guaranteeing the right of the accused to communicate with counsel, presumably by phone.

Other states grant the right to make a local phone call, which won’t really help you much if you get arrested in a state other than where you reside.

4: If No One Comes Forward to Accuse You You’re Free to Go

Sorry. While the prosecutor may be reluctant to move forward with a case if no one steps forward to accuse you of a crime that doesn’t mean they won’t. Even if no one steps up and points the finger at you the prosecutor is free to press charges against you on behalf of your fellow citizens if they feel it’s in the public interest to do so.

5: If The Police Deceive You It’s Entrapment

There’s a common belief that anytime the police engage in deception it qualifies as entrapment.

This however, is simply not the case. Entrapment is only said to occur if the police had to go to great lengths to break down your resistance before you agreed to commit a crime. As such, if an undercover police officer proposes a crime and you readily agree to go along there is no entrapment.

6: You Can’t Be Convicted on Evidence Police Obtained by Lying

Not true. Let’s say you get arrested and a police officer lies and tells you they have 15 witnesses that will identify you.

Thinking the game is up you confess only to learn later there were no witnesses. You may think your confession is worthless because the police were only able to extract it by lying. But you’d be wrong. While it is a crime for you to lie to the police it is not a crime for them to lie to you.

7: The Police Can’t Use Evidence Obtained Without a Search Warrant

Again, not true. At least not all the time. While in most cases police must go before a judge, show probably cause and obtain a search warrant there are some very significant exceptions to this rule including the “plain view” doctrine.

For instance, if a police officer approaches you while you’re sitting on your porch and through your front window notices a stash of illegal drugs on the coffee table in the living room he or she won’t need a warrant to arrest you and seize those drugs.

8: Your Spouse Can’t Offer Testimony Against You

Oh yes, they can. And if they don’t like you very much they probably will if given the chance. What the state can’t do is force your spouse to testify against you if they don’t want to.

However, if your spouse hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in 20 years because of your snoring they may waive the marital communication privilege and rake you over the coals. Also, if the person is your ex-wife/husband at the time the case is being prosecuted they can be compelled to testify against you.

9: The State Needs Physical Evidence to Convict

Not true. Even though TV shows tend to promote the notion that there needs to be some form of physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA, or even a surveillance video, for a person to be convicted most cases produce no such evidence.

In those cases, the testimony of an eyewitness can be enough to send someone away for a long time. Even in some murder cases where the defendant’s life is on the line they can be convicted based solely on circumstantial evidence.

10: You Have a Right To A Jury Trial

Not always true. Even though the 6th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to trial by an “impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” the founders threw a bit of a fly into the ointment when they prefaced this right with the words “In all criminal prosecutions”.

By doing so they left the interpretive door open for the Supreme Court which subsequently determined that “criminal prosecutions” meant “serious offenses”. Therefore, if you are charged with a crime that carries a maximum sentence of less than 6 months the Supreme Court has determined you have no Constitutional right to a jury trial.