Did the Salahis break any laws by crashing the White House state dinner?

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Dec. 1 2009 6:22 PM

Did the White House Party-Crashers Break the Law?

What the U.S. Code has to say about sneaking into state dinners.

The Salahis. Click image to expand.
Michaele and Tareq Salahi 

The couple that managed to sneak into last week's White House state dinner will be the subject of a congressional hearing on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Secret Service is conducting its own investigation to determine whether their behavior merits criminal charges. What laws, if any, might the Salahis have broken?

One that prohibits trespassing on federal property and one that forbids lying to the Secret Service. Title 18, § 1036 of the U.S. Code forbids "Entry by false pretenses to any real property, vessel, or aircraft of the United States or secure area of any airport or seaport." That would include the White House grounds. In other words, if they lied their way into the party—or withheld information that should have been disclosed—they might have broken the law. Another statute, § 1001, is a broad prohibition on lying to the federal government, which of course includes the Secret Service. That law can be used to prosecute anyone who "knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact" or "makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation" to the government. That could include lying about your arrest record on a government job application, claiming a fake deduction on your taxes, or telling someone you're on the White House invite list when you're not.

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Just because the couple showed up uninvited doesn't mean they broke the law. The prosecutor—most likely the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia—would have to prove that the couple intended to deceive. (The couple insists that they were invited.) The trespassing statute requires that they entered under "false pretenses," which means making intentionally false statements or having an "intent to defraud." The statute that prohibits lying to the feds requires that they do so "knowingly and willfully." So the prosecutor has to show that the couple did not merely drift past lax security. The Salahis must have deliberately fibbed their way into the party. That could mean saying they're on the list when they knew they were not—a false statement—or, if there was a requirement that they show an invitation, declining to do so—hence "concealing" or "covering up" important information. If the couple honestly thought they'd been invited, even if they weren't, it would be hard to show willful deceit.

The typical punishment for trespassing under § 1036 is a fine and/or jail time for up to six months. (If you're trespassing in order to commit a terrorist attack, that goes up to eight years.) Lying to the government can get you a fine and up to five years. If prosecutors can prove that one crime led to another—that the Salahis trespassed onto government property specifically so they could commit a felony offense by lying to the government, which in some cases can be a felony—the combined offense could yield a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

Explainer thanks Darren Blackford of the Secret Service, Stephen Garvey of Cornell Law School, and Orin Kerr of the George Washington University Law School.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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