On shutting up and why to do it.

There’s a pretty terrific article in this week’s Economist about the American criminal justice system. It doesn’t say a whole lot that people who follow the problem closely don’t already know well, but I posted it to Facebook about fifteen minutes ago, and it’s already been re-posted by four of my friends, none of whom are necessarily inclined to talk criminal justice issues, so it’s a pretty accessible way to communicate this information.

Grits for Breakfast has a good post that highlights some of the salient points the article raises, but there was another thing that stood out to me: The introductory paragraphs illustrate the problem by focusing on a Texas orchid dealer who was arrested for the federal crime of trafficking in orchids that didn’t always have proper paperwork. Now, presumably there’s a reason that represents the public good why we don’t want people doing that – I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t know a whole bunch about orchid trafficking, but I can take as an article of faith that selling orchids that come with improper paperwork (even though, according to the article, dealers in countries where orchids are grown don’t always have the paperwork available) harms society in some way.

It’s not the underlying charge that’s the problem, though:

He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term.

In addition to illustrating the absurd, Kafka-esque nightmare that can be our criminal justice system, it also illustrates the reason why Rule #1 is in place – Never Talk To The Police (or, as Popehat calls it, SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP). Because I’ll bet you my next paycheck that this guy, who didn’t seem to understand that he’d done anything criminal in selling orchids whose paperwork didn’t always precisely match the flower (to the tune of $20,000 a year, for which the prosecutors described him as the “kingpin of an international smuggling ring”), tried to explain to the police that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that he didn’t know, that he was pretty sure that they had all the right paperwork, that he didn’t even think he ever sold them without the right paperwork, whatever – anything that could explain his reasonable position in this, get him out of it. I’ll bet you the next paycheck that the federal agents listened sympathetically, told him that they wanted to help, assured him that it was all a mistake, told him to give him the real story so they could get to the bottom of things, and then once he started talking, looked for any technical inconsistency to bust him.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game, as Ice-T used to say.

Hence, shutupshutupshutupshutup. Rule #1.

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