The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

Blackstone’s Formulation and Chief Wiggum

I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them.

While some characters’ comments on The Simpsons may seem to be nothing more than absurd, there is often sophisticated knowledge behind them. One such instance was when Chief Wiggum commented “I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them” after watching a suspect drive away in the season 11 episode “Saddlesore Galactica.”

While it may appear that Chief Wiggum is simply doing a poor job of enforcing the law, he is actually confusing a long-established legal principle.

Between 1765 and 1769, the English judge, jurist, and professor William Blackstone wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England. These four volumes were influential in guiding the evolution of the modern legal system. One of his better-known criminal law principles is commonly called Blackstone’s Formulation. It states: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This principle speaks to the concept of presumed innocence. In criminal law, the accused is presumed innocent until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In Canada, this right is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Therefore, it seems that Chief Wiggum is confusing the principle’s general idea: A person is innocent unless it is proven otherwise in a fair and public hearing. However, despite what Chief Wiggum thinks, Blackstone never intended for authorities to simply let suspects walk away.

  1. Even though innocence is presumed, when a person is charged with a serious indictable offence they are not automatically set free until their trial takes place. A court must first determine whether the person can reasonably be expected to return for the trial, or the likelihood that the person will commit other offences before the trial.
    1. Find examples of people who have been released pending their trial. Were there conditions put on their release?
    2. Do you think imprisoning people suspected of serious crimes is a reasonable limitation on presumed innocence? Why or why not?