How To Beat The Rap On Law & Order


The Guide To Surviving TV Crime Show Investigations

Anyone familiar with the bevy of crime shows that dominate the TV schedule these days realizes that the erstwhile good guys (e.g., the police and the prosecuting attorneys) succeed not only because they are heroic, hardworking, and streetwise but also because they routinely and expertly employ investigatory methodologies of ambiguous legality and dubious morality to capture and convict suspected evil-doers (AKA perps, AKA creeps, AKA scumbags, … ).

Justification for these tactics is based on the unshakable belief that all suspects fall into one of three categories:

  1. Guilty But Not Yet Convicted
  2. Guilty But Not Convictable Because Of Stupid Laws, Spineless Judges, Idiot Legislators, Or Slimy Defense Lawyers
  3. Not Technically Guilty But Should Be Convicted Anyway


The observant viewer will also note that, incredibly enough, the designated criminals on these dramas fall for the same interrogation techniques and legal maneuvers every week – even though these scenarios, with a full explication of the underlying strategies, have been repeatedly broadcast on TV, day and night, for years. Why do these otherwise wily, often brilliant individuals, who have the intrinsic advantage of a willingness to cheat, lie, and mislead and, one assumes, some aptitude for and experience with these skills, fall prey to the interrogators’ ancient, clichéd tricks? One wonders if, hidden away in Idaho perhaps, the big networks and major cable stations maintain colonies of potential criminals living in quasi-Amish mode, isolated from television, movies, and videos, until tapped to commit and be convicted of a crime? Or do Sipowicz and his comrades in blue preface their Miranda warnings with the query, “Have you ever seen me on TV,” only arresting suspects who respond in the negative?

Well, I, for one, will be prepared. If, for example, the Rapture actually turns out to be that cataclysmic period when real life and television completely merge, as presaged by today’s reality shows, and I become a suspect on CSI, Joplin, I intend to be ready.

Now, I am not a conniving, devious lawyer, although I do flatter myself with the belief that I could have achieved that status if the military of these United States had been drafting doctors and deferring law school students back in the 70s.

I have, however, undergone a legal apprenticeship of sorts, provided by the American TV industry in the form of hundreds of viewings of episodes of Perry Mason, The Defenders, Dragnet, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Law & Order-affiliated series, CSI, Wherever, Cold Case Files, The Closer, and the like that has, I submit (did you notice that “I submit” part? well, that’s lawyer-talk) has more than compensated for the absence of a formal law school education on my CV. Add to that basic corpus of forensic data my robust paranoia, my penchant for accumulating random information, and, of course, my severely compromised attention span which precludes distinguishing, for example, between the tactics explicated in an actual trial on Court TV, the courtroom heroics displayed by Mr. Fonzarelli in the “Fonzie For The Defense” episode of Happy Days, and the many trials scenes on The Simpsons and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a truly unique judicial theory.1

This perspective on contemporary American jurisprudence is the nidus of a comprehensive set of principles under which I shall operate should I ever be questioned about my role in a TV crime – whether I did the deed or not.2

Being an altruistic sort of chap (OK, there are still a few gaps in my ambulance chaser persona), I am herewith sharing these principles with the television-deficient faction of my friends and colleagues. Finally, I suppose I should point out, caveat emptor-wise, that these axioms are technically valid only should one be questioned by Lennie Briscoe, Jack McCoy, Sipowicz, Gil Grissom, or some other television-based law enforcement official. I haven’t a clue about how to proceed if the arresting officer works for, say, the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office in southwest Missouri instead of Steven Bochco in a TV studio.

Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time It Right

1. Should I decide to profit from killing a business partner or a (formerly) loved one, I will not be greedy. I will be satisfied with the single $2,000,000 insurance policy taken out three years ago instead of buying two more seven-figure policies in the week prior to the murder.

2. And even if the individual I murder is wearing an incredibly cool piece of jewelry or article of clothing, I will not snatch it for my personal use. If somehow I do find myself in possession of an item of adornment or apparel belonging to the victim, I will take care not be wearing it when arrested, regardless of how good I look in dark green.

3. On the other hand, if the idea is to make the murder look like a robbery gone awry, I will not leave the cash, credit cards, and Rolex untouched.

4. If I become so desperate or demented that I decide to use a gun registered in my own name to whack the aforementioned business partner or loved one, I will at least come up with a better story than “I forgot to file the police report that my gun was stolen last week – while I was at my insurance agent’s office applying for some new policies on the victim.”

Questions & Answers

1. Regardless of the strength of my alibi, I will resist the apparently universal impulse to respond to the accusations with a sneering “Prove it” or its even smugger variation, “You can’t prove a thing,” either of which economically provides the authorities with both an implicit confession of guilt and a motivational challenge.

2. Nor will I resort to the sarcastically intoned “Is that supposed to scare me?” after a cop or prosecutor has made an obviously scary threat. In any case, I suspect that Lennie et al, being detectives after all, might pick up a clue that I was frightened when I fainted, developed total body tremor, or became incontinent.

3. I will also eschew the arrogantly stated pseudo-question, “Do you know who I am?” or its equivalent, “Do you know who you’re dealing with?” This is mostly because antagonizing the officers seems counterproductive, but also because a perusal of a random assortment of newspapers or, better yet, celebrity magazines provides convincing evidence that being recognized as a celebrity or politician is hardly a guaranteed Get Out Of Jail Free card. I suppose I might go with the “Do you know who I am” query if I happened to be the arresting officer’s beloved mother whom he doesn’t recognize for some reason, but this would seem a rare kind of case, not to mention an extraordinarily complex story line.

4. I will also forgo variations on You can’t believe I had anything to do with killing …

  • my wife (or husband)
  • my best friend
  • my business partner
  • my competitor
  • my life-long enemy
  • my identical twin
  • a complete stranger
  • my mistress
  • a cop
  • my psychiatrist
  • my lawyer
  • the man who killed my wife
  • the only witness against me

Despite the outraged astonishment (or astonished outrage) suspects express with those phrases, it turns out that, yep, the detective can and, indeed, does believe he or she did exactly that.

5. Above all, I will not ask “Do I look stupid enough to [commit the crime in question in such an especially obvious or otherwise brainless manner]?” The answer is all too apparent, and I’m not there to be a straight man for the cops.

6. If I am a physician being charged with a crime, I will not

  • Pompously explain that I cannot cooperate with the investigation because I’m too busy saving lives
  • Dress in “a fancy Armani suit” (apparently a well known signal of criminal intent regardless of the suspect’s profession; well trimmed Van Dykes and goatees appear to be giveaways as well)
  • Practice in “a fancy Park Avenue office” (as a rule, cops hate it when suspects have fancy stuff)
  • Invoke doctor-patient confidentiality (which both signals guilt and antagonizes police and prosecutors)

7. If I have a dream dealing with a real-life murder or other crime, I will not, regardless of how vivid and life-like the dream may be or how accurately prophetic my dreams have been in the past, call the local precinct to assist their investigations.

8. I will memorize my attorney’s office phone number, his home phone number, his cell phone number, his car phone number, his wife’s phone number, his mistress’s phone number, his mother’s phone number, his mother’s cell phone number, …

9. As the police are leading me away post-arrest, I will proclaim, in loud, clear tones, “Honey, call my lawyer and tell him to meet me at the police station.”

  • I will do everything possible to assure sure that, should I ever be arrested, I am in the company of someone who will respond positively to being called “Honey” by me.
  • I will not assume that my loved one, partner, henchman, or other Designated Honey has reached my lawyer and so use my one phone call from the police station to order a pizza in a show of false bravado. If my attorney is not already present at the police station, I will, instead, simply call him myself.

10. I will conscientiously avoid any behaviors in general that could lead a policeman to wonder aloud if I am “trying to be some kind of asshole.”

  • I will not, for example, ask “OK, which one of you is supposed to be the good cop and which one is the bad cop?”
  • I will, in fact, eschew wisecracks about police, prosecutors, law enforcement, and associated topics (e.g., doughnut shops) in general, regardless of my reputation as a raconteur and my previous successes in easing tension with humor.

11. I will hire, in advance, the smartest, most aggressive, most pragmatic, most cynical, and (especially) scariest lawyer in the system. I will carefully listen to my lawyer’s advice and will not instruct him or her, “You work for me; just do what I tell you,” “I don’t care what you think, it’s my life and I’m not taking the deal,” or “Put me on the stand; I’ll make the prosecutor look ridiculous.”

12. At the first opportunity after being arrested, I will respectfully but clearly and repeatedly ask for my lawyer.

  • If the police respond to my requests for an attorney with “Why would an innocent man need an attorney?” I will interpret this as a rhetorical question and my exclusive response will be the repetition of my post-arrest mantra, “I respectfully ask to see my lawyer before answering any more questions.”

13. Regardless of how kind and understanding the police are to me and how rare and valuable such comradery and friendship are in this vale of tears, I will maintain a high level of suspicion that a proffered kindness may be an trick rather than true compassion and that, indeed, the admirably empathic officer may actually be trying to convince me to admit to the crime or otherwise implicate myself.

14. If asked in an interrogation if I am a religious person, if I believe in God, or if I am a member of a particular denomination, I will remember that it is unlikely that the officer is interested in a discussion of the metaphysics of religion or that he or she is proselytizing. I will, instead, assume that the goal is to use my religious beliefs or my institutionally-instilled guilt as a lever to garner damaging information from me. Consequently, I will answer these questions with a polite but noncommittal “That’s such a private thing that I couldn’t possibly put my thoughts in words.”

15. I will keep in mind that providing precise detail in answers to queries such as “What time did you leave the bar on the first Tuesday in March eight years ago?” may be counterproductive, a fact that may otherwise become apparent in the 17th hour of the interrogation when asked to repeat the same story for the 67th time. Instead, I will automatically preface all my responses with disclaimers of uncertainty and utilize subjunctive-laden answers that describe wide ranges of possibilities and multiple alternatives. I will be fearless in my use of the ultimate fall-back response, “I dunno.”

  • If I do use the “I dunno” response, I will do so by murmuring “I dunno” in an apologetic, self-deprecating manner rather than defiantly snarling, in the fashion of a particularly snotty CEO, “I do not recall.” Once I have initiated the “I dunno” stance, I will maintain it, regardless of the ridicule of or insults to my intelligence, character, ancestry, or manhood or any other aspersions cast by the officers or attorneys questioning me.
  • I will not change my story even if the officers or prosecutors introduce seemingly irrefutable facts that appear to contradict what I’ve said. Seemingly irrefutable facts that appear to contradict what I’ve said are the reason I hired a lawyer.

16. If I screw up and am consequently caught in an inconsistency such that the prosecutor triumphantly asks “Were you lying then or are you lying now,” I will fake a thoroughly researched and rehearsed grand mal seizure with post-ictal amnesia. The first memory I will recover will be my attorney’s name. (Admittedly, faking a seizure carries certain risks and is hardly a fail-safe strategy; on the other hand, it beats the heck out of being trapped in lies or, worse, falling apart and confessing on the stand which appears to be the standard response by TV witnesses to this challenge line of questioning.)

17. If a short detective smoking a cigar and wearing a shabby raincoat tells me “there is just one thing [he doesn’t] understand” or that he has “just one more question,” I will respond that he’s lucky he only has one thing he doesn’t understand since I’m confused about many things regarding the case and proceed to ask him fifty or sixty questions that are irrelevant to the case. If that tactic proves unsuccessful I will then assess the immediate situation in order to decide between the two available courses of action:

  • Pivoting 180 degrees and then sprinting away from the detective with as much speed as I can muster
  • Faking a thoroughly researched and rehearsed grand mal seizure with post-ictal amnesia.

18. I will not adopt a defense that depends on a henchman/colleague/lover remaining steadfast in his or her testimony – or convincingly faking a seizure.

19. I will politely refuse offers of coffee, soda pop, or water while sequestered inside an interrogation room. I can accept that there may be valid arguments supporting capital punishment, but giving fluids to a suspect not allowed bathroom privileges? That’s clearly cruel and unusual punishment

20. I will not make faces (whether funny or scary in aspect) at the folks on the other side of the one-way mirror.

21. I will keep in mind that police and prosecutors are apparently allowed to fib to garner an advantage in an interrogation while the subject of that interrogation has no reciprocal privileges. (Does that seem fair? I don’t think so.) Consequently, I will maintain a high level of suspicion about the veracity of statements made by those questioning me. Examples follow:

  • An attorney or policeman bragging that they have convinced one of my co-conspirators to testify against me in return for a reduced sentence even though I have no co-conspirators
  • An officer declaring they already have or soon will have forensic evidence that will prove my guilt (especially when the referenced test is one I’ve never seen on CSI Miami, New York, or Las Vegas and most especially when the test involves DNA samples the police found in the Xontac Time-Space Continuum Vortex).

22. Before I agree to a deal offered by the prosecution, I will read all the fine print, ascertain that the District Attorney isn’t crossing his fingers, otherwise declaring “King’s X,” or signing “Mortimer Schnerd” instead of his real name, and insist on a clause granting me immunity from all charges past, present, and future in all jurisdictions no matter what, no tricks, no take-backs.

23. I will be aware that “Presumption of Innocence” is a concept that is more valuable as an answer on an 8th Grade Social Studies multiple choice test than as a procedural guideline in a downtown precinct’s interrogation room.

24. I will keep in mind that confessing to a small crime (say, a delinquent library book) may be a reasonable strategy if it reduces the risk of being proven guilty of a large crime.

  • I will be very careful not to get Principle #24 backwards.

25. Even if I’m found not guilty, even if the prohibition of double jeopardy precludes further actions against me, even no matter what, I will never, ever say “You can’t touch me now so I’ll tell you how I killed him.”

26. If the interrogators offer empathic rationalizations or speculations about the motivation for my alleged crime (e.g., “Hey, if I caught my wife trying to pass off that generic K-Mart Kola crap as Diet Coke, I’d strangle her too – any real man will understand that.”), especially if they explicitly or implicitly indicate that a judge or jury would be sympathetic toward me because of that motivation, I will limit my responses to silence, further requests to see my lawyer, or seizure-faking.

27. If the District Attorney threatens to prosecute one of my loved ones, whom he knows to be innocent, in order to coerce my confession, I will remain loyal to that individual and visit him or her as often as permitted by the prison rules.

28. I will not relax my vigilance until I see the final credits rolling.

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post by Danny Bradbury – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, via Wikipedia

Note: Originally posted Mar 19, 2006 at, a predecessor of


  1. In keeping with the principle of full disclosure, I should also point out that I also tend to confuse the strategies of the ADA on Law & Order: Trial By Jury and Lilith’s psychiatric methodologies on Cheers, apparently because both roles were played by the same actress []
  2. Ahem, notice the insouciance with which I dismiss the trifling matter of Guilt Vs Innocence – I am clearly a natural at this legal representation stuff; Law school? I don’t need no stinkin’ law school. []

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