Criminal Law and Psychology

By Dallas and Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 562-7549

One of the things I geek out on in my practice is how psychology intersects with criminal law.  It never ceases to amaze me how the applications of this field of science could affect virtually any type of case ranging from marijuana possession and driving under the influence, to robbery and murder.

I am obviously an amatuer psychologist at best, so I’ll apologize and defer to any real psychologists that read my blog and take issue with anything I say.  Also, I’m well aware my discussion today only scratches the surface.

Our brains are constantly processing, prioritizing and often distorting information.  It’s part of being human.  My belief as a criminal defense attorney is that I have understand this is the case for everyone — myself included.  Not only do I have to understand this is the case, but I have the challenge of demonstrating to a judge or a jury the explanation may not be a clear as it appears.

Police approaching a driver may be influenced by all sorts of things which affect their perception… not the least of which are past experiences, biases and prejudices.  For reasons I don’t understand, police may also feel the need to be controlling to the point where they feel justified in manipulating someone into allowing them to search a vehicle or take take field sobriety tests.

Then there is the person that is pulled over on the road-side.  The presence of an authority figure in uniform can be extremely powerful… to the point that someone would capitulate to an unreasonable officer request even though the person may know it their legal right to refuse — and in their legal best interest to refuse.  The interplay between an officer with the need to control and an every-day person who is socially programmed to respect authority figures fascinates me an it’ often critical to demonstrate to the jury exactly what is going on between the lines so the understand the police’s white-washed version might not necessarily be the entire story.

Again, I could go on all day, but a last example I’ll give is psychology of an everyday person sitting on a jury.  As much as we think a juror reasons the same way we do, a good criminal trial lawyer has to understand that the juror is in a completely different mindset.  Jurors are responsible citizens that merely showed up at the direction of the county, city, or federal government for jury duty.  They are shuffled from room to room and ultimately put into a room full of lawyers they don’t trust trying to tell competing stories.  Jurors aren’t going to naturally gravitate to your position just because you think you’re so clearly right and the other side is obviously wrong.  Studying juror psychology, though, helps a good criminal trial lawyer shape and sculpt his message so that it is consistent with the jurors’s pre-existng values, beliefs, and biases.

As an attorney that frequently tries cases ranging from DWI and drug possession to aggravated robbery and other serious felonies, I make it a priority to know and understand all the psychological interplay more than my opponent prosecuting the case.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For legal advice about any situation, you should contact an attorney directly.  Contacting the attorney through this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship and communications sent to the attorney are not considered privileged.

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