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Was Sean Penn’s Meeting with El Chapo a Crime?

In one of the stranger bits of news to start 2016, Sean Penn, the Academy Award-winning actor and director, secretly met with and interviewed one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo.” Guzmán is the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the largest criminal organizations in Mexico. Mexican actress Kate del Castillo arranged the interview after the drug lord approached her about creating a movie about his life. Following the meeting, Penn’s interview with the notorious fugitive ran in Rolling Stone.1Immigrants Arrested

Six months before the meeting with Penn, Guzmán escaped a maximum-security prison. A few months after he met with Penn, the Mexican navy raided El Chapo’s coastal hideout in Los Mochis, recapturing the fugitive and returning him to prison.

Now that El Chapo has been arrested, many people are wondering if Penn’s interaction with the drug lord could be considered a crime.

Accessory After the Fact

Generally, you have no legal obligation to report knowledge of a crime or the location of a person you know has committed a crime. As Georgetown University Law School Professor Paul Rothstein, an expert in criminal law and procedure, told People magazine, it is not a crime to merely visit someone who you know to be a fugitive. “There is no criminal liability for seeing something illegal and not reporting it. If Sean Penn did nothing more than visit and report, he is protected by the First Amendment, and is in the clear.”2

Despite noting that El Chapo boasted that he is the largest supplier of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana in the world, Penn’s acts of meeting and interviewing the fugitive are likely protected under the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. History is replete with examples of reporters meeting with wanted criminals, including a famous CNN interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997. Simply reporting the story of a fugitive is generally not met with charges for aiding and abetting a fugitive.

However, Penn could get into legal trouble if the meeting involved more than getting the fugitive’s story. If it were proven that Penn gave aid to El Chapo, he could be facing charges for being an accessory after the fact. In California, you could be considered an accessory after the fact if:

  • You knowingly harbored, concealed or aided a person,
  • You knew that person was convicted of a felony, AND
  • You did so in order to protect that person from facing punishment for that felony

If Penn were found to have in some way given aid to Guzmán, such as misleading authorities as to his location or arranging for transportation to keep him out of reach of police officers, he could potentially face criminal charges.

In California, accessory after the fact can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you face a $5,000 fine and 364 days in county jail. If you are charged with a felony, you could face up to three years in state prison.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Meeting with a person who committed a crime does not always lead to criminal charges, but it does happen, even when you have done nothing wrong. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have over 30 years of experience successfully defending people facing criminal charges. We work tirelessly to ensure our clients the best possible outcome to their cases. Let us help you, too.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney near you no matter where you work or live.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will be there when you call.

1 Sean Penn, “El Chapo Speaks,” Rolling Stone, January 9, 2016, available at http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/el-chapo-speaks-20160109.
2 Susan Keating, “Will Sean Penn Be Prosecuted for His Clandestine Meeting with Fugitive Drug Kingpin ‘El Chapo?’” People, January 12, 2016, available at http://www.people.com/article/will-sean-penn-be-prosecuted-abetting-convicted-drug-kingpin-el-chapo.

1. [1 Sean Penn, “El Chapo Speaks,” Rolling Stone, January 9, 2016, available at http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/el-chapo-speaks-20160109. href=”#ref1″>↩
2. 2 Susan Keating, “Will Sean Penn Be Prosecuted for His Clandestine Meeting with Fugitive Drug Kingpin ‘El Chapo?’” People, January 12, 2016, available at http://www.people.com/article/will-sean-penn-be-prosecuted-abetting-convicted-drug-kingpin-el-chapo href=”#ref2″>↩

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