Forensic Science or Science Fiction? 7 Myths From Crime TV Shows

Between the countless procedural shows on TV and the plethora of crime dramas on the big screen, you might feel like you’re an expert on the criminal justice system. But while these titles may be thrilling and addictive to watch, they aren’t necessarily always the most accurate representations of the law. Here are five common crime myths perpetuated by Hollywood.

1. The magic of forensic science

Examining a print

Examining a print | Source: Thinkstock

Shows like CSI, Bones, and Law and Order all showcase the importance of forensic science in a criminal investigation. But while the process of forensics is crucial in collecting evidence that may eventually help put someone behind bars, it’s not magic, as TV and movies make it seem. In reality, one loose hair doesn’t usually make or break the case. In fact, crime scenes are typically littered with DNA — not only from a guilty suspect, but also possible from any passing individuals who may have contaminated the scene. It usually takes long hours and even days of painstaking work to process a crime scene.

Even if DNA that belongs to the person responsible is found, it still has to be be matched to a suspect, which isn’t as easy as cop shows make it look. Firstly, fingernail and hair samples are often deteriorated. Plus, Hollywood likes to imply that running DNA through “the system” is all it takes to catch a bad guy, but in truth, only a very small percentage of the general population has DNA cataloged in government databases.

2. The reading of Miranda rights

Police officer

Police officer | Source: Thinkstock

Thanks to Hollywood, many believe that if a cop fails to read someone their Miranda rights, they’re allowed to walk. That’s actually not at all accurate. Police are only required to recite the Miranda warning before any pertinent questioning of a suspect takes place. Contrary to popular belief, one does not need to be Mirandized to be arrested (as being arrested and being questioned are not the same thing). Also, basic questions, such as name, address, and Social Security number do not need to be covered by a Miranda warning. Additionally, the police don’t have to Mirandize anyone who is not a suspect.

3. Cell phone records

Using a cell phone

Using a cell phone | John Moore/Getty Images

Crime dramas tend to perpetuate the idea that cell phone records can definitively put someone at the scene of a crime. But as has been shown in countless real-life cases over the years, that’s vastly overestimating the precision of cell phone location records. Instead of pinpointing a suspect’s whereabouts, cell tower records usually only put someone within an area of several hundred square miles or, in an overcrowded city area, several square miles.

There are ways to use cells to identify a more specific location – an iPhone’s G.P.S. transmitter can narrow down locations to within 50 to 100 feet and law-enforcement agencies can also ask phone companies to “ping” a suspect’s phone in real time. But those methods aren’t recorded in typical phone company cell tower records, which are really conducted for business and not for tracking purposes.

4. Filing a missing person report

emergency, phone

Woman using a cell phone | Source: iStock

Ask most people how long they need to wait before reporting a person missing, and they’ll say 24 hours. Basically, because that’s what every crime show and movie ever has told us. But it turns out the 24-hour concept is something made up by Hollywood. The truth is that no set amount of time must elapse before you may report someone missing. It all depends on the specific circumstances. In certain cases – such as if the missing individual is a child, a senior citizen, senile or mentally or physically impaired – a report should be filed as soon as possible, so an immediate search should be conducted.

5. Tracking a serial killer’s pattern

Kevin Bacon on The Following

Kevin Bacon on The Following | Source: Fox

Movies and TV shows often make it seem like cops always know when a serial killer is on the loose and that it’s only a matter of piecing together the clues to find out their true identity. But that’s not the case. Before any investigators can get to work uncovering the real identity of a serial killer, they have to realize that there’s a serial killer to be found in the first place — which isn’t as simple as it seems. It can take months and even years to identify a pattern and connect multiple crimes to one suspect.

6. The “loner” profile


Dexter | Source: Showtime

On a similar note, the “dysfunctional loner” label that’s often affixed to serial killers in TV (like Showtime’s Dexter, seen above) and movies is also not necessarily correct. Many of the most infamous criminals in history have lived deceptively normal lives on the surface. As FBI profilers and other experts note: “The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange…Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community.” This ability to blend is what often leads them to get overlooked by law enforcement and the public.

Speaking of profiling, Hollywood tends to portray serial killers as white, relatively young men. That may be the case with certain high-profile cases like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, but not always. The generalization excludes serial killers who are women, as well as other ethnicity groups. As the FBI notes, “the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.”

 7. The one phone call

A lock

A lock | Source: Thinkstock

Unlike what every on-screen jail scene would have you believe, there is no rule about only getting one phone call after being arrested. While there is some variation in laws from state to state, in general, the police can allow you to make any number of calls to friends or family members at their discretion. Obviously, you shouldn’t expect to make any overly lengthy calls. Plus, as with anything else, using a phone is privilege that police have the right to be revoked at any time, should you become violent or hostile.

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