Getting It Right

Right now I'm watching The Star Chamber, a movie from the 80s in which Michael Douglas plays a judge who is so upset by criminals getting off scot-free that he joins a secret judges' organization that kills people who get off on legal technicalities.

It's a cool idea - people get off on technicalities all the time. I specifically chose not to go into criminal law because I didn't think I could live with innocent people getting convicted or guilty people going free.

But I'm not really getting into the movie because, in short, they're getting it wrong.

In this particular case, what they're getting wrong are the legal technicalities that are getting the criminals off. To be fair, these technicalities were probably not wrong in 1983, when the film was made. For example, one guy who is accused of killing five women gets off because he threw his gun in the garbage can in front of his house (!) and the cops can't search the garbage can because it's the criminal's private property. So they wait until the garbage can is emptied into a city garbage truck. But since they don't wait until the suspect's garbage is mixed with the rest of the garbage in the truck, the gun is thrown out because it was found in violation of the criminal's Fourth Amendment rights.

Now, in 1983, a person's privacy rights in their garbage were still in question. The Supreme Court's decision on this point - holding that a person does NOT have privacy rights in garbage they've placed on the curb, by the way - didn't happen until 1988. But as early as 1978, state courts were coming down against privacy rights in garbage. The analysis is basically "look, you put it outside on the curb in a plastic bag, so how can you expect it to be private?"

In other words, when Michael Douglas gets all "oooh, my hands are tied and I have to set them freeee! Noooo!" he's overreacting a little.

And now that this point of law has been settled against the movie, the plot point just makes no sense.

Of course, I can't get peeved about the fact that the filmmakers in 1983 didn't read the minds of the 1988 Supreme Court, but it's sort of ruining the movie for me right now.

That's the problem with certain things in fiction - law, medicine, sports, anything really, that has people who are experts in it - is that, if you get it wrong, your readers will know and will complain. Talk to any doctor about ER, or any lawyer about Law & Order, and you'll hear countless stories about how the shows get it wrong.

The effect is worse, even, in books, because readers assume that an author has the time to actually do the research to get the details right. Think of books where the author hasn't taken the time to figure out that street X doesn't actually intersect with street Y. Or that the Eiffel Tower didn't actually exist at the time the book is taking place. Or that the legal concept of double jeopardy doesn't mean if you're found innocent of one murder you can never be convicted of murder again. Mistakes like this will jerk a reader (or a viewer) right out of the story like she's got a rope around her neck.

I'm hoping that the movie gets away from the law and on to the Judges of Vigilante Justice part relatively quickly, since that's where the strength of the story will really lie. I'm also hoping that the remake - which IMDB says is in development right now - will have a top-notch legal consultant. There are plenty of loopholes in the law that can be exploited for this kind of story, but none of the ones from the original movie will work.


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