In ‘Oh, Really?’ the Biederman Blog’s editors — voracious consumers of all matters pop culture — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular productions, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.

What happens when you don’t pay your taxi driver? According to cable network G4 and the producers’ edit of its hit reality show Campus PD, you automatically waive several constitutional  criminal protections. Hmm, this situation’s worth some sober legal consideration:.

Campus PD features college-town police busting parties, breaking up crowds or fights, performing D.U.I. traffic stops, and arresting college-aged students for (predominantly) alcohol related misdemeanors. It is a direct port of Fox’s COPS franchise, but limited to a narrow demographic of suspects.

While many reality shows are inherently competitive, enough that “Reality-Competition” is its own distinct category  at the Emmy Awards, Campus PD offers no prize other than the suspects escaping serious consequences.  But the officers  — as edited in this clip — may be playing a round of  “How many ways can we smudge the Fourth Amendment in 2 minutes and 14 seconds?”

The errant youth is portrayed as perhaps a prototypical college stoner.  A taxi driver brings in the police because the student, the cabbie says, failed to pay a $20 fare for delivering him home. When there’s a knock on his door and the youth answers, suddenly the lawmen have seized him, yanked him from his home and handcuffed him. The officers then focus on securing his driver’s license and when they can’t find it in his pockets, they march their arrested party back in his house (in cuffs) through his living room to his bedroom. One cop saunters into another room to scrutinize an impressive collection of party debris littering the living room coffee table, while his partner babysits his captive in a bedroom.

Although the youth points an officer towards cash to cover the disputed cab fare, his parnter is off on a merry search of yet another where, behold, he finds marijuana.

There’s no chase to cut to. But to be brief, the producers let the audience know through an on-screen advisory that this segment has been edited, so, of course, the real-time events aren’t chronicled fully. But in the longer version that has been broadcast, the officers take the young man’s money, pay the cabbie and now instead of theft, our protagonist faces a marijuana possession charge.

What would counsel advise at this point? There would be a likely motion, to start, to suppress the marijuana find by the officers, requiring the student to show the lawmen were proffering “fruits of a poisonous tree” — that they conducted, under the Fourth Amendment, an unreasonable search or seizure.

In Welsh v. Wisconsin, an in-home arrest was found unlawful when police entered a drunk suspect’s house after he had abandoned his car.  Welsh v. WI, 466 U.S. 740 (1984). The Supreme Court concluded there was invalid exigency to enter the suspect’s house without an arrest warrant in “hot pursuit,” when the state had classified his prospective crime as relatively minor; the police already knew where the suspect lived and easily could find him later. Here, the pot possession, on its face, poses less of a threat to public safety than did the Welsh driver because, at best in the broadcast scenario, our man is an intoxicated passenger and is not behind the wheel.  And how legally dicey are the officers’ actions, grabbing a suspect out of his doorway and yanking him outside to arrest him?

Score: TV – 1, Constitution-0

Although not stated, Greensboro, N.C., often is the setting for this show.  Let’s stipulate that this shoot occurred in the Tar Heel and tobacco state, where North Carolina criminal law would apply. Theft of services, such as a cab fare, is usually prosecuted as larceny locally, and because the value of this transaction is less than $1,000, our wayward youth would face a misdemeanor. NC Gen. Stats § 14-72   over that $20 cab fare.

Even felonies (absent exigent circumstances) require an arrest warrant to nab a suspect in his home. So what gives with the officers actions in this misdemeanor? Then what do we make of officers, with a suspect in custody, compelling him to reenter his home and their searching the premises, finding that weed and so on? The “reality” broadcast conveniently does not address these constitutional concerns.

Score: TV -2, Constitution -0

Is our suspect even under arrest? The cops are not shown telling him he is, nor does the audience see him receive a Miranda warning. Although Miranda violations “do not bear fruit,” meaning this omission typically does not lead to evidentiary (here, dope) suppression, the suspect’s utterances about possession could be challenged and suppressed. See United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004).

Also edited out of the show? The scene where the prosecutor calls these officer’s commander and rips them about how cases get made legally.

Score: TV-3, Constitution-0

At 1:15 in the clip, the following exchange ensues:

  • Officer: Do you mind if we go in your apartment to look for your ID?
  • Suspect: I’ll get it for you.
  • O: You’ll get it for me? If we walk you in here, will you tell us where it’s at?
  • S: Yeah
  • O: Let’s go find it real quick.

The lead officer then leads the handcuffed suspect into his apartment bedroom, as his partner veers off to check out that coffee table trash. How defensible are these moves?

While police may conduct a “precautionary search” of premises to ensure the absence of  a threat, the law frowns on them exceeding the scope of their authority if they also seek to collect evidence. MD. v. Buie, 494 US 325 (1990). As shown in this show, our officers — legally allowed to check spots such as closets, under beds, or on a porch, all spots where others or threats might hide — head, instead, straight for  target-rich tables that beckon with possibly incriminating paraphernalia.

Final Score: 4 for TV, 0 for the Constitution.

While constitutional law and criminal procedure may be far less compelling TV than cat-and-mouse footage between cops and suspects, these reality shows beg the most obvious question that never seems to be asked by those arrested (though hammered later, no doubt, by their counsel):  “Why are there cameras here?”

And while those glaring klieg lights and rolling tapes may pile up ratings, in some scenarios, such as this one, they also likely provide fine defense fodder for, ultimately, getting suspects off the hook from legally dubious conduct and charges. Of course, when it comes to smarts, if a cabbie got you home after a hard night of party hearty, just pay him his fare. He earned it.