Tareq and Michaele Salahi were hoping for reality TV stardom when they strolled uninvited into a Nov. 24 White House state dinner. Legal experts say the party-crashing duo may have to settle for the reality of a courtroom fight instead and possibly a prison cell.
“There’s no question the Secret Service is likely to push very hard for a criminal charge,” says George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “They are famous for lacking a sense of humor.” It would be harm to blame them, given the circumstances. In an alarming security breach, the Salahis managed to schmooze with President Obama, Vice President Biden and a slew of other top figures at the gala event honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Though the couple passed through metal detectors, observers noted they could have potentially smuggled in anthrax or other unconventional weapons, as well as espionage tools such as electronic listening devices. The House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled hearings on the intrusion for Dec. 3. The Salahis have been invited to testify, along with Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. They have not publicly responded to the request.
It remains unclear just how the attention-hungry Virginia socialites were afforded entry into the heavily guarded affair. If the two somehow believed they had been legitimately invited and did not misrepresent themselves to authorities, experts say they most likely did not commit a crime. But if they lied to security officers manning the entrances, that could put them afoul of federal laws barring trespassing onto government property and making false statements to government officials.
“You’ve got an obligation to be honest when you’re talking to the government or to government agents,” says Michael O’Neill, a criminal law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Whether the Justice Department opts to prosecute the pair “would all be based on what it is they said to those agents.” Even if the two were then welcomed into the White House, they could still face a trespassing charge if they were granted permission based on a lie.
The false statements charge is a felony, and trespassing can be charged as a felony if it was committed in order to advance another felony crime. Each of the charges carries a prison term of up to five years, but experts call a long sentence highly unlikely. “You don’t come across cases like this too often,” says Orin Kerr, another George Washington law professor. “The trial judge would have a lot of discretion to pick an appropriate sentence.”
Turley says many judges would forego a prison sentence, considering the blow of a felony conviction along with fines or probation time ample punishment for first-time offenders. He also offered some advice for potential future scofflaws: if you’re going to commit a crime, at least keep the photos off Facebook. “These people took something that would have been a memorable keepsake and turned it into criminal evidence,” he says. “This act of vanity could cost them dearly.”
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