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Lorimar Television

14 Non-Judgmental Facts About The People's Court

Lorimar Television
Lorimar Television

Though it continues to air new episodes five days a week in syndication, most everyone nostalgic for The People’s Court remembers its glory days in the 1980s. Presenting real small claims cases with binding rulings, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner, his trusty bailiff Rusty, and court reporter Doug Llewelyn became daytime television celebrities.

Premiering in 1981, The People's Court effectively launched the on-air reality trial genre that gave us Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and Judge Mills Lane. (The latter was previously a boxing referee.) If you still have the show’s theme stuck in your head, you’ll probably enjoy some trivia about Wapner’s history, Rusty’s ties to Charles Manson, and why one Mr. America decided to sue the show.

1. NO ONE WANTED TO AIR IT.

In the 1970s, it was not yet common practice to see cameras installed in real courtrooms. That didn’t stop producer John Masterson from approaching Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall in 1975 with the idea to record legal proceedings and air them on television. While the idea was well-received by Hall, networks weren’t interested. It wasn’t until a Masterson associate named Stu Billett thought to tweak the idea by replicating a courtroom and staging a kind of mock trial that the format began to show promise.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A COMEDY.

Animal Court via YouTube

Billett’s notion to take a portion of small claims cases in Los Angeles and offer the parties arbitration in exchange for television coverage found a receptive audience at NBC. But the network didn’t want a real judge to preside: They preferred a comic—Nipsey Russell was one name floated—that would listen to the cases and make jokes while being coached off-screen by a legal expert. When Billett got television station KTLA interested, they asked him to make two pilots: one played straight and one played for laughs. Billett refused, taping only the “straight” version with retired LA County judge Joseph Wapner. After being passed up by networks—again—Billett took it directly to syndication in 1981, where it became an immediate hit.

3. WAPNER NEVER USED THE GAVEL.

Wapner had gotten a call from Billett and partner Ralph Edwards about appearing on the series as the judge. When he arrived to their offices for an audition with a real case, he found it amusing that it had been set up with a gavel—the prop was something he had never used in 20 years of law and never once picked up on the show.

4. WAPNER AND RUSTY THE BAILIFF HAD HISTORY.

Animal Court via YouTube

An aspiring professional baseball player, Rusty Burrell came to Los Angeles in the 1950s and wound up working in the sheriff’s department. After becoming a bailiff, producers spotted him and invited him to appear on Divorce Court, a series that staged mock trials using a mix of actors and real legal professionals. (Burrell also moonlit as an actor, appearing on General Hospital.) One of the attorneys who made frequent appearances on the show was Joe Wapner, Sr.—Joe Wapner’s father. Later, when Billett began insisting they use a “sexy” female bailiff on the air, Wapner refused and told him to hire Burrell instead.

5. RUSTY WAS A BUTTERFINGERS.

In one moment from the series that got a lot of repeated play on blooper specials, Rusty was asked to show Wapner a clock that was at the center of a repair dispute between the plaintiff and defendant. When he got to Wapner’s bench, Burrell dropped the clock, damaging it. Wapner joked that it was a “cheap clock” anyway.

6. SOME CASES WERE OVER PEANUTS.

Bill Perron via YouTube

The show’s producers culled from real small claims filings in Los Angeles, enticing parties to drop out of the judicial system to come on the air and have Wapner settle their dispute in what amounted to arbitration. The appeal: The show would pay the damages, which at the time was limited to $1500 (and eventually $2000) in Los Angeles court. While that was the maximum, producers frequently got away with spending far less: Wapner once ruled on a moldy cake, awarding the plaintiff $9 for having her daughter’s birthday ruined.

7. WAPNER ONLY WORKED ONE DAY A WEEK.

Good work if you can get it. Owing to the shooting schedule of People’s Court, Judge Wapner was only needed on the bench for one day out of the work week. The production would shoot 10 cases—making for five episodes—in a single shift, leaving the rest of the week free and clear for the on-camera talent. In 2000, Wapner told Salon.com that despite his condensed schedule, he made far more as a television judge than he did while on the bench in Los Angeles County.

8. WAPNER MEDIATED A CONFLICT BETWEEN JOHNNY CARSON AND DAVID LETTERMAN.

At one point, it was reputed that Wapner was recognized by more people than Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. In acknowledgment of his popularity, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson invited Wapner to mediate a “dispute” between Carson and Late Night host David Letterman in 1986 for Carson’s show: Carson once hauled away an old truck of Letterman’s, causing damage. While the hosts wanted to play it as a comedy sketch, Wapner refused to appear unless his ruling was binding. He awarded Letterman $24.95 for a new headlight.

9. RUSTY ONCE GUARDED CHARLES MANSON.

After the “Helter Skelter” murders of 1969, cult leader Charles Manson became one of the most infamous figures in American culture. During his trial in Los Angeles, Burrell was charged with guarding him on a daily basis. Burrell recalled that Manson, who sat right beside him, would say, “You know, I could get up and walk out of here any time I want.” Burrell advised him that it wouldn't be a good idea.

10. IT ENCOURAGED MORE LAWSUITS.

Analog Child via YouTube

With 7.5 million viewers tuning in every week during its heyday, The People’s Court offered more than just entertainment: It acted as an educational tool for people who had never before considered small claims litigation. According to a 1989 New York Times report, the series led to an increase in the number of cases filed and even had some plaintiffs citing the television cases as if they were a proper precedent. And although the show offered an immediate financial reward, “real” litigants were often surprised to discover that many defendants preferred not to pay judgments. “If Judge Wapner were here,” one was heard to lament, “he’d see that I was paid.”

11. THE SHOW'S PRODUCERS WERE SUED BY MR. AMERICA.

Not all resolutions were respected by the litigating parties. In 1988, former Mr. America Rex Ravelle sued the show’s producers for $1 million owing to Wapner’s ruling. Ravelle alleged Wapner had made him look like a “bully and a buffoon” during the proceedings, which saw him attempt to reclaim back rent owed by an evicted tenant. Wapner ruled in the defendant’s favor, prompting Ravelle to file the substantial lawsuit after the show ignored his request for his episode to not be broadcast. He settled for $2500.

12. WAPNER WASN’T TOLD HE WAS FIRED.

Animal Court via YouTube

After 12 years and more than 2400 episodes, producers decided that The People’s Court had run its course in 1993. According to Wapner, he was the last to know: His brother-in-law had read of the show’s cancelation in a local San Francisco newspaper. “It irritated me to no end for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know if it was my age. I think I had all my marbles.” (The show returned in 1997, with former New York City mayor Ed Koch presiding.)

13. WAPNER WAS NO FAN OF JUDGE JUDY.

In 2002, after 20 years on the bench and 13 on television, the then-82-year-old Wapner ruled on Judge Judy Sheindlin, his heir apparent and a presiding television judge who acted in sharp contrast to Wapner’s own even temperament. “She’s discourteous and she’s abrasive,” he told the New York Post. “She’s not slightly insulting. She’s insulting in capital letters.” Sheindlin retorted she wouldn’t engage in “mudslinging.”

14. WAPNER WENT ON TO ADJUDICATE ANIMAL TRIALS.

Animal Court via YouTube

Animal cases were a staple of the original People’s Court, which once had Wapner ruling on whether a cat that was supposed to be dyed blue and came out pink was worthy of financial restitution. (It was.) In 1998, Animal Planet enlisted the semi-retired judge to oversee Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, a series that pitted pet owners in disputes over grooming, vet bills, and furry custody issues. The show, which lasted two seasons, featured Rusty Burrell but not court reporter Doug Llewelyn; during the original Court, he was bitten in the knee by a plaintiff’s dog. Llewelyn got a tetanus shot.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2016.

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Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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Why Are Mugshots Made Public Before a Suspect is Convicted by the Court?
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iStock

Jennifer Ellis:

Several reasons.

1. Mugshots can help find people when they have absconded, or warn people when someone is out and dangerous. So there is a good reason to share some mugshots.

2. Our legal system requires openness as per the federal constitution, and I imagine most if not all state constitutions. As such, this sort of information is not considered private and can be shared. Any effort to keep mugshots private would result in lawsuits by the press and lay people. This would be under the First and Sixth Amendments as well as the various Freedom of Information Acts. However, in 2016 a federal court ruled [PDF] that federal mugshots are no longer routinely available under the federal FOIA.

This is partially in recognition of the damage that mugshots can do online. In its opinion, the court noted that “[a] disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.” The court specifically mentions websites that put mugshots online, in its analysis. “In fact, mugshot websites collect and display booking photos from decades-old arrests: BustedMugshots and JustMugshots, to name a couple.” Some states have passed or are looking to pass laws to prevent release of mugshots prior to conviction. New Jersey is one example.

a) As the federal court recognizes, and as we all know, the reality is that if your picture in a mugshot is out there, regardless of whether you were convicted, it can have an unfortunate impact on your life. In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem because it really wasn’t easy to find mugshots. Now, with companies allegedly seeking to extort people into paying to get their images off the web, it has become a serious problem. Those companies may get in trouble if it can be proved that they are working in concert, getting paid to take the picture off one site and then putting it on another. But that is rare. In most cases, the picture is just public data to which there is no right of privacy under the law.

b) The underlying purpose of publicity is to avoid the government charging people and abusing the authority to do so. It was believed that the publicity would help protect people. And it does when you have a country that likes to hide what it is up to. But, it also can cause harm in a modern society like ours, where such things end up on the web and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a catch-22. We have the right to know issues and free speech rights smack up against privacy rights and serious damage of reputation for people who have not been convicted of a crime. The law will no doubt continue to shake out over the next few years as it struggles to catch up with the technology.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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