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THE LAW IS A ASS for 03/11/2003
"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 187
Originally written as installment # 165 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 809, May 19, 1989 issue
I remember the genesis of this column. I was discussing over lunch the Columbo movie, the particulars of which will follow below in the actual column, with a friend who isn't a lawyer and the friend told me how he had learned so much from my columns that he recognized immediately Columbo's illegal search and seizure would have doomed his case. I disagreed. Not only because it's what lawyers do, but because there were legal and case law reasons why Columbo's case against Alex Brady might not be doomed; the illegal search notwithstanding. About halfway through my explanation, I realized I was outlining a column, which I went home and wrote that night.
It was a rare double bonus: not only did our conversation give me a column; I got to deduct the lunch as a business expense.
THE LAW IS A ASS
Installment # 187
If it weren't for the extra forty-or-so pounds, which seven-and-one-half years of a sedentary life style as an attorney cum columnist has deposited around my ever-expanding gut, I would swear I was back in high school. College at the latest. I mean, I turn on my TV and find Perry Mason has returned, I've gotten Smart again, Mission: Impossible has resumed with the Impossible Mission Force up to its old tricks of actually accomplishing their missions and proving show's name is inaccurate, and Lieutenant Columbo has reemerged after twelve years hiatus without changing his car or wardrobe. If I could only find a talking palomino or an uncharted desert isle, I'd feel downright comfortable. (Okay, I was lying about the island.)
As I write this column, it is March 20, 1989. According the three-week rotation of the ABC Mystery Movie, a new episode of Columbo is supposed to be on tonight. It isn't. Instead there's some made-for-TV movie with Oprah Winfrey showing what to do with sixty pounds of ugly fat. According to T.V. Guide, next week will be a new episode of B. L. Striker with Burt ("Gee, Win, Lose or Draw is on hiatus again, I'd better do something to get out of the house.") Reynolds. Do you realize what this means?
They skipped Columbo!
If you, like me, are a confirmed, wrinkled-raincoat wearing, can't-get-enough-of-it Columbo freak, then maybe your palms, like mine, are sweating, your vision's blurring, and you're shaking uncontrollably. As a public service, I will analyze the February 27, 1989 episode of Columbo, "Murder, Smoke and Murder".
It started with a murder. Some shock! Columbo's a Homicide cop in Los Angeles. What's it supposed to start with, a Bris?
This time around, a young, ultra-successful movie director and producer named Stephen Spiel . . . er, that is Alex Brady, has murdered a childhood friend, Leonard Fisher.
It seems Leonard discovered a skeleton in Alex's closet--almost literally. When Alex was filming a student movie during his college days, one of the movie's stunts backfired and one of Ste... that is Alex's stars was killed in a motorcycle accident. It also seems that said dead star was Leonard's sister.
"Well, now you see, Sir, Leonard didn't--You know, that's a lovely shirt. My wife's been after me to get a shirt like that. Would you mind my asking how much a shirt like that would cost? My point? Let's see, I had it here somewhere." (The preceding impression was a public service for those whose shakes were getting worse.)
Alex covered up the death, but Leonard was going to expose him. That meant fraud and bankruptcy and scandal and prison and, "Where's that money, you stupid, silly old fool!" (Sorry, about that. I slipped into Jimmy Stewart from It's A Wonderful Life. Once you start impressions, you can't turn 'em off.)
Alex, not surprisingly, didn't want any part of scandal and fraud and prison. So he did what any good main Columbo guest-star would do; he murdered Leonard.
From a series of scattered clues--a book dropped at the scene where Alex dumped the body with Alex's unlisted phone number in it; two unfinished ice cream sodas in Alex's private sanctum sanctorum on the studio lot; a heel which fell off of Leonard's shoe in the studio lot where Alex killed him; and a ticket for the studio tour which Leonard used as a bookmark in Alex's high school year book--Columbo figured out that Alex was the murderer and began his patented "Whittle Away At the Murderer Until He Finally Confesses If Only To Keep Me From Saying, 'Uh . . . Just One More Little Thing,' Again" Act and catches Alex.
Yes, it's an old formula. So is NaCl. But salt still works after all these years. Salt hasn't changed, why change Columbo?
I did have three problems with the episode. First, for Columbo to work best, the murderer must either be sympathetic to the viewer or Columbo's intellectual equal, so that it looks like he might actually get away with it. Or both.
Alex Brady was neither. He was an arrogant, snot-nosed, manipulative little pisher, who you were happy to see get it in the end and it made you sad that the movie was only two hours long so that Columbo couldn't make him suffer even more. Not once did I ever think that Columbo wouldn't catch him. In fact, I was surprised that he actually went the distance with Columbo. Maybe the writers wanted to make him suffer longer, too.
Second: once Columbo found that shoe heel, Alex had to know it was over. That's when I would have cashed in my T-Bills and flown to Rio. Why Alex waited around so Columbo could reel him in like Bruce the shark from Jaws reeled in Robert Shaw, I don't know.
Finally there was the legal problem. As I mentioned earlier, Columbo found Leonard's ticket for the studio tour being used as a book marker in Alex's high school year book, which was in Alex's on-the-studio-lot sanctum sanctorum. Columbo knew Alex didn't put the ticket there. Alex didn't use book marks; he was one of those vile, despicable creatures who dog-ear the corners of pages. (I knew there was a reason I hated Alex!) Columbo knew the ticket was Leonard's, because it had been time-stamped only minutes after a taxi left Leonard outside the studio entrance.
The ticket was an important piece of evidence. It proved Alex lied, when he said he hadn't seen Leonard in three years and that Leonard had been in Alex's sanctum sanctorum on the day of the murder. The problem was, Columbo got the ticket illegally.
He searched in the year book without a search warrant and without anyone's permission. That, for anyone who has read the Fourth Amendment--which seems to exclude most of the present members of the United States Supreme Court--is an illegal search and seizure. Alex could get the ticket ruled inadmissible at trial under the Exclusionary Rule.
And if he does, the case is thrown out of court, right?
Wrong. But I don't blame you, if you thought so. Virtually every writer in Hollywood and comic books thinks that if evidence is obtained illegally or an arrest is made illegally, the entire case is invalidated and thrown out of court. That's what they keep putting in their stories.
What would really happen in Alex's case is that only the ticket would be thrown out of court, because only it was obtained in an illegal search. All of the other evidence Columbo collected--which was enough to build a strong circumstantial case against Alex--was obtained legally and would be admissible. Even if Alex got the ticket suppressed, he'd still face prosecution with the rest of the evidence.
Moreover, Alex would not even be able to get the ticket suppressed, anyway. Yes, the ticket was obtained by an illegal search and would, ordinarily, be suppressed. But--and again contrary to the popular belief of movie, TV, and comic-book writers who have judges suppressing evidence with the regularity of spam hitting your morning's E-mail--real-life judges hate suppressing evidence. They look for any reason they can devise not to suppress evidence. They have grafted several exceptions onto the hard-and-fast Exclusionary Rule, to make the Rule soft and slow.
One of the exceptions judges grafted is the Inevitable Discovery Rule. This rule says, even if evidence is discovered in an illegal search, courts won't suppress it, if it inevitably would have been discovered in a legal search based on evidence collected independently of the illegal search.
Lieutenant Columbo had enough evidence to obtain a search warrant of Alex's sanctorum. Therefore, because Columbo could have obtained a warrant and found the ticket legally, it would have been discovered eventually and would not be suppressed even though Columbo jumped the gun a little.
There you go, Columbo addicts. Think you can hold out another three weeks? If not, I have good news. I understand that on April 2--which means by the time you read this it will already have happened--ABC is going to revive another classic, light-hearted, Los-Angeles-based, detective show that hasn't had a new episodes in years. Moonlighting.
BOB INGERSOLL, Cleveland, Ohio based assistant public defender, comic book fan and reader, TV watcher, husband, father, snow shoveller, lawn mower, legal analyst, and occasional--very occasional--sleeper doesn't think there's enough hours in the day for all this activity. I never thought I'd come to believe that out of all the members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the member with the most useful power would be Triplicate Girl.
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