Is it just me, or are other people getting tired of seeing the “perjury trap” used to bring prominent people down? With politicians the issue has on occasion been about sex. Here’s how it works: you start out with a politician, who, like many politicians (and butchers and bakers and candlestick makers), has at one time or another had a wandering eye. Next, you take this non-criminal behavior and you criminalize it by forcing that politician, under one pretext or another, to admit or deny the affair under oath.
Facing a potential media circus (and related family and political injury) the politician denies the affair. Then, using all of law enforcement’s potent resources (apparently unneeded for comparatively unimportant work such as solving murders and the like), you prove that the affair did, in fact, take place.
Having taken entirely non-criminal conduct and successfully turned it into a crime, the prosecution then declares to the world that the issue is not sex, but perjury, and the integrity of the judicial process.
This, of course, is how Ken Starr came close to bringing Bill Clinton down.
(Although we’ll have to see how the facts develop, the new charges against Detroit’s mayor may not entirely fit this pattern, given that the underlying suit that led to the testimony in question did involve claims related to the alleged affair. Still, as a general principle I hate seeing alleged perjury used as a basis for bringing a prosecution that is really about sex.)
As I’ve discussed before, use of the perjury trap is becoming far too common in relation to the issue of steroid use by former athletes. Directly charging the athlete in question for the conduct itself is generally not feasible for a number of reasons. So, instead, prosecutors and politicians have been springing the perjury trap. Force the suspected “dirty” athlete to answer questions under oath about alleged steroid use before a grand jury or a congressional committee. Facing the likelihood of having their images destroyed, the athletes have a strong motivation to fib.
Then, using law enforcement resources of a magnitude that wouldn’t be expended in the average triple murder investigation, the government is able to prove the testimony false.
“Gotcha!” And now, it’s off to jail with you . . . you steroider you.
Score one for the “good guys,” right?
This is a crock. It’s one of the fundamental precepts of ethical law enforcement that criminal investigations are supposed to be directed against crimes, not people. Here this principle is turned on end. The purpose of a perjury trap is not to uncover criminality, but to generate it. It demeans the system and opens the door wide to political abuse.
Let’s be clear: what’s objectionable here isn’t forcing people to give testimony they don’t want to give. The Bush Administration’s claim that congressional efforts to obtain testimony regarding the firing of US Attorneys amounted to a “perjury trap,” for example, was absurd. All administration representatives had to do to stay out of trouble was to tell the truth.
What is objectionable, however, is where testimony is sought, not primarily to obtain needed information, but, instead, in the hope of trapping the witness in a perjured statement.
And that is happening too often.
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