In Hollywood, laws only exist when they’re convenient to the plot. Otherwise, characters can steal cop cars, commit credit card fraud, and wildly drive tarmac stair cars alongside airliners without getting sniped from the control tower. Nobody wants to watch The Fast And The Furious gang sit through traffic court for two hours. The problem is that even plots that are specifically about the law tend to get it so hilariously wrong that most of us grow up with no idea how any of that stuff actually works. Here are some outrageous examples.
Drunken Vegas Weddings Are Easily Annulled
According to Hollywood, the worst thing that can happen to you after a wild night in Vegas is to wake up married to some floozy. It’s happened many times, but we’re going to focus on perhaps the dumbest example, the film What Happens In Vegas.
After a blackout drunk night, Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz awaken to find they have tied the knot. Following a brief argument and an agreement to call it quits, Kutcher plays a slot machine with Diaz’s quarter and wins a jackpot worth 3 million dollars. Diaz, wanting her half of the money, reminds him “What’s mine is yours” and shows him the marriage ring.
Cut to a scene in a New York City courtroom where a judge “sentences” them to six months of being husband and wife, because he’s sick of people insulting the sacred institution of marriage. Romantic comedy shenanigans ensue. See? The law can be wacky, too!
The Legal Reality: This marriage could and would have been annulled in a hot second, and Kutcher would have made off with the entirety of the cash with precisely zero problems.
First, the marriage took place in Nevada. So if a New York judge has moral hang-ups about granting an annulment or divorce, you would just go back to the state where this sort of stuff is commonplace. Second, those two things we just said aren’t synonyms. An annulment declares a marriage to be void from its inception: It’s like it never happened. A divorce means the marriage is legally recognized, but the parties no longer want to have any legal relationship. This is important, because dividing marital property can only happen in the latter case. Which makes perfect sense because the law was not carefully designed to produce nothing but wacky conflicts.
In Nevada, grounds for annulment include “want of understanding.” This allows either party to a marriage to get their marriage annulled if either were incapable of assenting. Basically, it’s one of the few times getting black-out drunk is a legal excuse for doing something stupid. Ever wonder how celebrities like Britney Spears and Dennis Rodman have gotten out of their Vegas marriages in a matter of days, while somehow managing to not get sued for a mansion or six? Yeah, it’s this thing.
So, because Kutcher’s character was blitzed out of his mind at the time he said his vows and thus lacked the mental capacity to legally enter into the marriage, he would have easily gotten a Vegas attorney to annul his marriage (to the surprise of no one, there are Vegas attorneys who specialize in this very thing). All the proof he’d need is their hilariously wasted “wedding video” for a judge to grant a swift annulment, and Ashton would have walked away with 3 million dollars and precisely zero Charlie’s Angels in tow. Although in real life he walked away with several million dollars and precisely one Charlie’s Angel.
Jim Carrey’s Climactic Legal Argument In Liar Liar Was Completely Wrong
In a pivotal courtroom scene of Liar Liar, Jim Carrey’s lawyer character pulls some major shenanigans to get his client Mrs. Cole half of her husband’s estate despite what their prenuptial agreement says. Carrey is able to do this once he realizes Mrs. Cole lied about her age so she could get married. In fact, she was 17 (a minor in California) at the time she got married and entered into the prenuptial agreement with her husband. BOOM! Everyone knows minors can’t legally enter into contracts! You just got lawyered, son.
The Legal Reality: Yeah, nope. It’s true that there are laws to protect minors from getting tricked into signing themselves into slavery or Comcast bundles, but there is some measure of common sense built in.
Any contract a minor enters into isn’t automatically void, but voidable. That might seem like semantics, but there’s actually a huge difference. A void contract is completely unenforceable, while a voidable contract is still valid after a certain point. In this case, that happens after the minor becomes a legal adult and either approves of the contract or lets a “reasonable amount of time” pass without doing anything to void it.
Again, this makes sense. If they’re okay with the agreement after they’re old enough to know better, they have effectively ratified it. You see why this completely sinks Mrs. Cole’s case. Sure, she was a minor when she entered into the prenup, but 15 years had passed and she never made an effort to declare it invalid. That contract is ratified.
Copies Of Official Documents Work Just Fine For The Court
Movies tend to treat legal documents like, contracts, wills, and the like as magical items. If you possess the original document, you’re good. If you destroy it, the agreement is void (“We have to steal the contract out of the safe by midnight, before it goes into effect!”).
A good example of this is Changing Lanes. The movie you’ve probably forgotten starts with a minor fender bender between Ben Affleck, who plays a Wall Street attorney, and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays no-nonsense Samuel L. Jackson character #3567. Both men are late for court: Affleck must file documents that will ensure the control of a foundation for his law firm, and Jackson is on his way to a custody hearing. Affleck blows off the encounter by acting like a rich, smug Affleck, which you’ll not be surprised to hear is a massive red flag for Sam Jackson #3567.
In his hurry, Affleck leaves the original document at the scene, and is now in a race against time to get it back because only original documents are admissible in court. Sadly, it’s now in possession of Jackson, and Affleck is exactly as screwed as you’d expect.
The Legal Reality: A copy of the document would have worked just fine, because courts are totally aware that documents are fragile things that can be lost to fire, floods, and stoned interns mis-filing them.
According to the rules of evidence, a duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original, unless there is a genuine question as to the original’s authenticity. That means the admission of a duplicate is pretty hard to challenge. The link there goes to a case in which a defendant in a counterfeit-check scheme insisted copies were no good because the original might have somebody else’s fingerprints on it, and the court said that was stupid.
Otherwise, the only problem is if somebody insists the copy is a forgery, but that’s not the case in the movie. No one ever disputes the fact that the old man wrote and signed the document, not even the guy’s own granddaughter. There are some states that require originals of some documents like wills be kept on file, but if your dog eats it, there are just some legal hoops to jump through to establish why you’re going with a copy instead. You probably don’t even have to show the judge the dog turds.
Of course, there’s always the chance that Affleck’s character was just too stupid to make a copy of the single most important document in his life, in which case he was a disgrace to his profession and fully deserved a Sam Jackson on his case.
There’s A Reason Real Police Don’t Work With Vigilantes Like Bruce Wayne
Obviously Batman operates outside the law – It’s when he works with the cops that things get complicated.
The most dramatic and idiotic example comes midway through The Dark Knight. Our heroes are faced with a problem: The key witness they want to use to prosecute the entire mob (Lau, the accountant that launders their dirty money) has skipped back to Hong Kong, and is outside the jurisdiction of the Gotham District Attorney’s office.
While on top of Gotham’s police headquarters, D.A. Harvey Dent, police top dog Jim Gordon, and a billionaire dressed like a bat all hatch a plan to bring Lau back to Gotham, so he can testify against the mob. The problem is that the Chinese government “won’t extradite a national under any circumstances.” The solution: Since Batman isn’t beholden to any pesky “laws,” he can just kidnap the dude and bring him back to Gotham. Vigilante loophole, baby!
While the vigilante loophole the movie seeks to exploit has a point in a “you can totally rob a bank if you don’t get caught” sense, it loses a modicum of credibility if said vigilante goes on missions at the behest of the chief of police and the district attorney. If that were possible, every single police department would have a squad of dudes in rodent costumes running black-ops missions any time they can’t get a warrant.
The legal reality: Batman would be considered a state actor, someone acting on behalf of a governmental body, and thus very much subject to the same regulation they are. Some indicators of state involvement that would qualify Batman as a state actor are: 1) a clear connection between the police and the private investigation, 2) completion of the private act at the instigation of the police, and 3) the private act is undertaken on the behalf of the police to further a police objective.
“But how would anyone prove that?” you ask. How about the fact that there’s a Bat signal on the top of Gotham PD, specifically used to summon Batman for this mission? Legally, it’s as if Gordon had gone to Hong Kong with a SWAT team and kidnapped Lau himself. That’d result in quite a storm when it comes time to answer to the dozen or so enraged agencies who are going to be screaming questions at them in at least two languages.
Of course, the same logic can also be applied to pretty much every iteration of Batman who has provably aligned himself with the Gotham City Police Department. All the bad guys he’s beaten to submission? Police brutality. All the evidence he’s Batman-ed up in ways normal cops couldn’t? Constitutional limitations on search and seizure apply – might as well toss it. Bet you feel so good about the Bat signal and the red phone now, Bruce!