Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"Locked Up At Home"

Two prisoners incarcerated in a local police station’s “Holding Cell.”  Neither looks particularly dangerous or suspicious, though one appears considerably more agitated than the other.

THE MORE AGITATED PRISONER:  “I have never done this before.”

THE LESS AGITATED PRISONER:  “Been held over for arraignment, or peed in an exposed toilet?”

“Both.  I usually use the stall.”

“What if they're taken?”

“Then I wait!  Sorry for the outburst.  I’m a little upset.  It’s just crazy.  One minute, I’m sitting at the movies.  The next minute, it’s ‘Empty your pockets’ and ‘Mug Shots’.”

“What are you in for?”

“Um… I don’t mean to insult you, but are you one of those ‘Jailhouse Snitches’?  No offense.”

“And none taken.”

“It’s just… I don’t know you.  I could accidentally reveal something ‘incriminating’, and there you are, testifying against me in exchange for a lighter sentence for you.”

“Law & Order”?

“I’m addicted.”

“Okay, I’ll go first? I’m in here for ‘Forgery.’  And if it will help you, I did it.  Now you can testify against me in exchange for a lighter sentence for you.”

“I would never do that.”

“It’s all right.  I confessed.”

“Good.  I mean… I don’t know if it’s good.  Maybe the police’ll put in a ‘good word’ for you with the D.A. for cooperating.”

“I’m not sure they actually do that.  Anyway, if you don’t want to talk about it…”

“No, no.  I mean, I don’t think I did anything wrong.  I come out of the Men’s Room at the movie theater. I pass by the ‘Concessions Counter’. The rotating hotdog machine… I don’t know, there was this big spark, and then flames.  When I saw that, I immediately went, “Fire!”

“You did?”


“Was the place crowded?”

“It was packed.  Why?”

“Then you’re the first one I’ve ever met.”

“I don’t understand.”

 “You’re the proverbial ‘Man who shouted ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater’.”

“Because there was a fire. The thing is, a police officer there happened to be buying some Twizzlers and he immediately made an ‘Off-Duty’ arrest.”
“Just your luck, huh?”

“I think he was new. I heard him bragging to the woman beside him, ‘My first “collar”.’  Ithink I’m totally innocent.”

“So do I.  Hey, do you mind if I ask some questions?”

“I guess so.”

“Did you actually shout ‘Fire!’ or did you just say ‘Fire’?”

“I actually shouted ‘Fire!’”

“And you said the theater was crowded, so we can forget thosetechnicalities.  I mean, if you had said “Fire!’ in a crowded theater, or shouted “Fire!” in an uncrowded theater, we’d have a legitimate legal argument.  The only other angle is, does the lobby constitute ‘an actual part of the theater’, or is it merely a ‘contiguous portion of the building’?”, because if you shouted “Fire!’ outside a crowded theater, then maybe…”

“Are you one of those ‘Jailhouse Lawyers’ I’ve heard about?”

“No.  But I do have an ‘Acceptance Letter’ to law school.”


“I forged it myself.  You know, in a way, I feel as unfairly accused as you are.  I mean, think about it.  A person draws the precise likeness of a butterfly and they’re a ‘Botanical Illustrator.’  I brilliantly duplicate the Dean of Law’s signature, and I’m a condemned felon.  Does that seem justified to you?”

“I don’t know...”

“If you were on the jury, would you convict me?”

“I guess I’d have to follow the law.”

“Well then you are totally sunk, my friend.”


“Because you shouted ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  If they ‘Follow the law’, you are bound for the rock pile.”

“There were flames flying out of the hot dog machine, which were, like, ‘this close’ to the oil in the popcorn machine.  What was I supposed to do?”

“Look, they’re going to ask you ‘point blank’, ‘Did you shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater?”  If you say ‘No’, it’s ‘Perjury’.  And if you say ‘Yes’, good luck finding a cellmate as congenial as I am.”

“But it’s not right! I mean, I understand their not wanting you to shout ‘Fire!’ when there’s no fire.  But who wouldn’t shout ‘Fire!’ when there is?  It’s an instinctive reaction.  You see a fire, your first response is not, “Uh-oh, I better race into the theater to see if it’s crowded before I shout ‘Fire!’”  You want them to know there’s a fire!”

“Do you want to hear the counter-argument to that?”

“Okay, fine.”

“What they are trying to avoid is ‘unnecessary panic.’  Shouting ‘Fire!’ – whether there’s a fire or no fire – could both possibly create that.  Therefore, the reality of the fire is irrelevant to the seeming intent of statute.”

“Well what was I supposed to do?  Track down the theater manager and say, in a calm, controlled voice, ‘I believe there’s a fire at a “Concession Stand’”, and then casually return to my seat?”

“I’ll take that ‘casually return’ part as sarcasm, which, by the way, I would steer clear of when testifying.  As for the rest of it, that would actually have been better.  You may feel you did nothing wrong but, at least technically, this is a serious transgression.  Shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater is the classic exception to the First Amendment protecting Free Speech.  And they significantly made it the First Amendment…”

“Actually it wasn’tthe First Amendment.  It was originally the Third Amendment, but the proposed first two amendments were not ratified by a sufficient number of states…(OFF CELLMATE’S ACCENTUATED YAWN)  Sorry.  I watch ‘The History Channel’ when there’s a ‘Criminal Minds Marathon’ instead of a “Law & Order Marathon.’  That show is relentlessly bleak.”

“Look, a smart judge will throw this case out because you shouted ‘Fire!’ but you did not falsely shout ‘Fire!’  The word ‘falsely’ was actually in the original decision by Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

“Wow.  You sure know your law.”   

“When you have a forged ‘Letter of Acceptance’, you have to work harder than everyone else.  Until they come in the classroom, and read you your rights.”

“I guess that rookie police officer was just showing off for his date.”

“Or following ‘Conventional Wisdom.’  People generally say, ‘You cannot shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater’, invariably forgetting the word ‘falsely’, which, if they adhere to the Common Law principle of "General Habit and Usage’, then you are back in the soup.”

“I hate the law!”

“I thought of forging a ‘Letter of Acceptance’ to medical school but my handwriting’s too good.”


POLICE OFFICER:  “You are free to go.”


POLICE OFFICER:  “Not you. Him.”


FIRE SHOUTER:  “Did you really think that was going to work?”

“I never think that works.  But the audience laughs every time.”

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