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Law is a Ass by Bob Ingersoll
Join us each Tuesday as Bob Ingersoll analyzes how the law
is portrayed in comics then explains how it would really work.

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THE LAW IS A ASS for 03/25/2003

"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 189

Originally written as installment # 294 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 1531, March 21, 2003 issue

Somebody once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." I don't remember who, but I know it wasn't my father. My father didn't say that to me once, he said it all the time. I think he was trying to tell me something.

Of course, being a rebellious teenager, I didn't listen. And that included my writing. I'd go on and on and on in my columns before I'd come to my point. Frequently that meant when I had a topic like today's topic, one that wasn't long enough to fill up one of those older, longer columns, I'd have to make it part of a column in which I covered two, three, or more shorter stories in that long column.

At some point, I started to listen, however. I think it was I realized that, if I was brief, I could do an entire column on each of those short topics and get two, three, or more columns out of it and I wouldn't have to look as hard for topics.

Yeah, that was when I probably started listening, when I finally figured out how listening would mean I didn't have to work as hard.


Installment # 189

If, as they say, confession is good for the soul, then maybe I'm about to do something for mine.

No, I'm not actually confessing to anything, I'm going to write about confessions. I figure that should count for something. (Hey, I'm a lawyer, I'm not passing up any chance that I might be doing my soul some good.)

What occasioned this particular little soul searching foray in soul saving is the story "The Rage of Angels" by Ian Edginton from The Batman Chronicles # 20. I don't want to be too taxing, so I'll give you the set-up in short form of the story.

Nightwing and the FBI are surveilling some bad guys smuggling things into our country. As the economy is particularly bad, the bad guys are triple dipping: they're smuggling firearms, drugs, and illegal refugees. Nightwing's about to spring into action, when Supergirl, who tracked drugs from her hometown to these operatives, swoops in. Complications ensue, when the bad guys sink the boat to destroy the evidence. Although Supergirl saves the refugees, the drugs sink. Ultimately, the bad guys are captured, but as they're captured on page nine of a ten-page story, the bad guys gloat, as bad guys are wont to do, when they're not captured on the last page to flesh out the story.

"Where is your evidence?" they ask. The guns were for their own protection. The drugs went overboard, so it would be the FBI's word against the smugglers. (Why is it that comic-book bad guys think juries inherently believe their testimony over that of the police I've had many a case in which it was the word of my client against that of the police. Any guesses as to whose word the jury believed?) Finally, the bad guys say that the refugees still have some family at home, family who could be put in jeopardy. So the refugees won't testify against them.

That's when Supergirl steps in and--SPOILER WARNING! here comes the ending of the story, if you don't want to know it, don't go on--takes the head bad guy somewhere.

Where? We don't know. Supergirl is an Earth angel. Along with being the lyric to a 50s do-wop song, it means she has powers and abilities far beyond those of people who have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Whatever hell Supergirl took this bad guy to, it, as Nightwing put it, "put the fear of God into him." The bad guy comes back from his little jaunt spilling more beans than Inspector Clouseu in a Birds-Eye plant.

Where did he go? We don't want to know. Mostly because if we did know, his whole confession might be inadmissible.

Remember our country--the one into which the bad guys were smuggling, so the one whose laws apply--has a Fifth Amendment which says that no one can be compelled to testify against himself. That means more than that the State can't call the defendant as a witness and ask him under oath, "did you do it?" It also means they can't coerce confessions out of the defendant.

Before it announced its decision in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona--the case that said you can't question a suspect until after you warn him about his right to remain silent and created a cottage industry for companies who print these warnings on little business cards--the Supreme Court researched confessions. It found that the police did use coercive methods to obtain confessions, up to and including physical force and that the result was many innocent people were confessing simply to tell the police what they wanted to hear to make the beatings stop.

The thing about coerced confessions is they're a little different from other constitutional rights violations. If a private citizen obtains evidence illegally and gives it to the police, the evidence is still admissible. Why? Because, if the police didn't do the illegal act themselves, suppressing the evidence wouldn't serve the purpose of the Exclusionary Rule, which is to deter the police from conducting illegal searches. Long-time readers of this column might remember that this is called "The Silver Platter Doctrine." (It's because the private citizens hand the police the evidence on a silver platter, and has nothing to do with what stores the citizens are registered in for their wedding presents.)

But the Silver Platter Doctrine doesn't always apply to coerced confessions. Many courts hold coerced confessions aren't admissible, irrespective of whether it's the State or a private citizen who's doing the coercing.

There's a simple reason for this, coerced confessions are inherently unreliable. If the police have a bag of crack cocaine, what it is--a bag of crack cocaine--won't change whether the police obtained it legally, illegally, or a private citizen stole it and gave it to the police. It will always be a bag of crack. Irrespective of how it was obtained, the evidence, itself, is reliable, because it will always be what it is.

The same isn't true with a confession. If someone beats a confession out of a suspect, the suspect frequently tells the person beating him what his interrogator wants to hear, simply to stop the beatings. The suspect may lie, may even lie about himself and give a false confession, simply to stop the beating. So, it doesn't matter whether it's the police who are doing the beating or a private citizen; the confession, itself, is unreliable. It's basic nature has changed and is suspect, because of the way it was obtained. For this reason, many courts have held that a coerced confession is not admissible and that it doesn't matter who--the State or a private citizen--was doing the coercing. That being the case, it's possible that what Supergirl did will ensure that the bad guys not only won't be prosecuted, but will get off scott free.

Unless, of course, Bludhaven can find one of those enlightened juries that might actually believe the cops over the bad guys.


Bob Ingersoll, lawyer in Cleveland and occasional analyst of the law hopes you got everything I was saying today. Good. Now explain it to me. I'm still trying to get my head around the whole "Lawyers Have a Soul to Save" concept.

Bob Ingersoll

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