Order in the Court

Straight-backed and steely-eyed, Amanda Bennis gazed at the jury. “You’ve heard what the prosecutor has to say. Mr. Jones would have you believe that my client, poor sweet Jack Durham, is a monster. But you know in your heart that’s not true. Not a single shred of the prosecution’s evidence stands up to even the simplest scrutiny. Mr. Durham has never harmed anyone in his life. Please do the right thing. Uphold justice—let my client go!”

Although Amanda’s voice rang strongly throughout the packed courtroom, everyone could tell that the jury wasn’t swayed. Twelve pairs of eyes glared in Jack’s direction, twelve mouths turned down in scowls. Jack blinked, trying to keep the tears at bay. He was an innocent man, but nobody except Amanda cared. He was going to rot in prison.

But then, just as all hope was lost, a man stood up from his seat near the back of the courtroom. “Jack didn’t do it!” he yelled. “It was I!”

As the room erupted into chaos, Jack began to sob. Thank God. His evil twin had finally seen the light.

Dramatic courtroom scenes: the bread-and-butter of countless movies, TV shows, and books. Fun to watch, fun to write. In real life, though, few cases ever make it to court.

Criminologists like to talk about the funnel model of criminal justice. Out of every 1000 serious crimes that happen in the US, only about half are reported to police. Eighty percent of the reported crimes go unsolved, meaning we’re left with only 100 arrests. Sixty percent of those defendants will be referred to juvenile court or have their cases dropped early by the prosecutor. Ten of the remaining forty will jump bail or flee, never to face trial. So we’re left with only 30 cases going to trial.

But wait! There’s more! Of those 30 cases, 27 will result in plea bargains, almost always well before anyone steps into the courtroom. If you’ve done the math, you’ll realize that out of 1000 cases, only three will end up before a jury. (Of those three cases, two will result in convictions and one in an acquittal.)

It may be a little discouraging to look at these statistics, and the practice of plea bargaining is controversial. But imagine how backlogged our courts would be if the vast majority of criminal cases didn’t shake out before going to court.

It’s fine if you want to include courtroom scenes in your book. Just keep in mind how rare they are. You might want to acknowledge, at least in passing, that plea bargains are the norm. Give your defendant a good reason for refusing the plea deal—but give your prosecutor a strong enough case that it’s credible she’d bother to take it to trial.


There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Curly Bill Cutter and his band of outlaws rushed out of the Perseverance City Bank, pistols in hand and pouches of gold nuggets and greenbacks stuffed into their clothing. But as they raced toward their horses, a man stood in their way. He was tall and lean, with a white Stetson on his head and a thousand-yard stare in his squinty pale eyes. “Hold on there, partners,” he drawled.

Laughing derisively, Curly Bill and his compadres pointed their weapons. But the tall man moved with preternatural grace, unholstering his weapon faster than an eye could track and taking down an outlaw with each bullet. When he was done, five bodies lay still in the dust, and one bullet remained in the chamber. The tall man blew on his weapon before settling it smoothly back in its holster. Then he tipped his hat slightly at a young woman in calico. “Howdy there, ma’am. There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Okay, I may have a bit of unhealthy interest in bad westerns. But we’ve all seen this scene or one like it. Have you ever wondered where that sheriff came from? Turns out he wasn’t a product of the Wild West at all—our sheriff had his start long before that, in Merry Olde England.

Back then, counties were called shires (yes, like where the hobbits live). In an era when travel was rare and dangerous, kings had trouble keeping control of the local population. This state of affairs didn’t improve after the Norman Conquest, when the nobility might not even speak the same language as the locals. So the king would appoint a man to represent him. Depending on the time and place, this man was responsible for a number of things, including collecting taxes, keeping prisoners until the judge rode into town, and generally keeping the peace. His title was reeve. Shire reeve, to be exact. Sheriff.

Sheriffs were often corrupt and often not very popular—like Robin Hood’s nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Some of these problems were later addressed with a different royal appointee, the coroner. I’ll blog about coroners some other time.

English colonists brought the sheriff system with them to America, where it was used primarily in rural areas. (Urban areas developed a different system based more on the English constable). Since the western United States remained rural for a long time—and, in fact, much of it still is—sheriffs stuck around.

Nowadays, sheriffs are usually elected officials who hire deputies to conduct their work. Wild West sheriffs had deputies too, although often those men were volunteers and worked only for a short, specific time to round up particular bad guys. Sheriffs today provide most of the law enforcement duties in rural areas, including the running of the local jails, just as their counterparts did in England a millennium ago. They may also be charged with other duties such as serving warrants or housing the local coroners office.

An interesting thing about the policing system we inherited from the English is that is takes place mostly at the local rather than national level. I’ll blog about this later too.

Maybe it’s due to their long history, but a lot of enduring legends and archetypes are attached to sheriffs. Think Roscoe P. Coltrane from Dukes of Hazzard. Andy Taylor. Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles. Rick Grimes. Bat Masterson. Wyatt Earp. And our old friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Incidentally, don’t get sheriffs confused with another Old West staple, the marshal. There were both town marshals and US marshals. More on them later!


I’ve Been Robbed!

Exhausted after a long diurnal cycle of guiding ships into port, Mazx hastily parked her hovercraft in the garage, grabbed her bag, and trudged into the house. All she wanted was a tall glass of Ganymedian pinot grigio, a few slices of leftover pizza, and a couple episodes of CSI: Mars. But as soon as she entered her living room, she discovered her furniture in shambles and her collection of priceless antique plastic Coke bottles missing. “Oh no!” she cried. “I’ve been robbed!”

Hang on there, Mazx. Unless the laws have changed by the 23rd century, you haven’t been robbed at all. You’ve been burglarized. But laypeople and writers get this one wrong all the time.

The definitions for both crimes—burglary and robbery—are old ones, originating in medieval England. In the modern United States we’ve tweaked and updated the definitions of both crimes, but the distinction between them remains. And it’s important.

Suppose one evening during the 14th century, Lionel breaks into Chaucer’s house to steal his astrolabe. Lionel would be guilty of burglary, which at that time was breaking and entering a dwelling place at night, with intent to commit a felony. Notice how Lionel doesn’t actually have to be successful in stealing the astrolabe to be charged with burglary. If Chaucer grabs him as soon as Lionel enters the home, and if it can be proved in Ye Olde Court of Law that Lionel intended to steal something while he was there, Lionel’s going to hang for burglary. If he’s successful in taking the astrolabe, Lionel can be charged with a second crime as well: larceny (the unlawful taking of another person’s property).

Today, the definition of burglary is considerably broader. Most states have eliminated the breaking requirement–entering is enough. They’ve also eliminated the requirement that the act take place at night, they’ve expanded the types of places that can be burglarized, and they’ve included people who enter for nefarious purposes other than felonies. California’s burglary law (Cal. Penal Code sec. 459) is a good example of this. In present-day California, Lionel is a burglar if he walks into Target with intent to shoplift, if he enters a mine to steal gold, or if he breaks into a car to take spare change from the console.

But what about robbery?

Well, let’s go back to medieval times. Robin Hood hops out of the trees and points his bow and arrow at a monk. “Hand over your shillings or I’ll shoot!” Robin yells. Robin has just committed robbery: taking another person’s property, with the intent to permanently deprive the person of that property, by means of force or fear. Robbery is actually two crimes packed together—a larceny plus an assault (the threat or actuality of harmful or offensive contact).

Modern robbery laws haven’t changed much since Robin Hood’s time. In California, for example, robbery is

the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear (Cal. Penal Code sec. 211).

In Mazx’s case, someone entered her home and took her Coke bottle collection. This is burglary. If, on the other hand, the bad guy had aimed his blaster at Mazx while she was at a stop sign and ordered her to give up her hovercraft, that would have been robbery.

Now let’s suppose Mazx arrives home before the bad guy gets there. As she’s pouring her glass of wine, the bad guy bursts in through the front door (which Mazx foolishly left unlocked), points his blaster, and shouts, “Give me your bottles!” Mazx, however, kicks the blaster from his hand, wrestles him to the ground, and hogties him with a kitchen towel faster than you can say qgrzxtiltbom. When our bad guy gets hauled before a 3D image of the judge, he’s going to be facing both burglary and robbery charges. His burglary was complete as soon as he stepped through the door intending to steal things, and the robbery happened when he implicitly threatened to shoot Mazx if she didn’t hand over her precious bottles.

Why does the difference between burglary and robbery matter? Back in medieval times, both burglary and robbery would get you hung, and nowadays they’re both felonies. But while burglary is classified as a property offense, robbery is considered a violent crime—not only has the victim lost property, but she’s also been threatened or physically harmed. Burglary can be devastating, but robbery is more dangerous. Robbery will generally bring a harsher punishment than burglary. (Keep in mind that theft and carjacking are generally not legal terms. They have come into popular use through the media, but they wouldn’t be used by cops or the courts.)

I know, I know. “I’ve been burglarized!” sounds less dramatic. But if you’re aiming for accuracy in your writing, remember to keep burglary and robbery straight.




Not too long ago, I was reading a thriller about a serial killer. The book was generally well written. But there were many factual errors about the criminal justice system, and each error pulled me right out of the story. In the end, I gave up on what might have been a very good book–if the details had been right.

And that’s why I started this website. I’m just starting out for now, but I’ll eventually be providing a summary of how the justice system works. I’m hoping this will serve as a reference for authors. I’ll also be blogging weekly about topics related to criminal justice. These will help dispel common myth and also, I hope, serve as inspiration for writers. I’ll also be answering your questions.

So, do you wonder how to make a federal case out of something? Know the difference between a prelim and a grand jury? Are you unclear about all the different kinds of policing or the distinction between prisons and jails? Here’s where to get your answers to these questions and more.