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Chatting With El Chapo: Was Sean Penn's Secret Meeting a Crime?

When an actor working as a reporter visits a wanted fugitive to talk about making a biopic, is it a crime? The question presents itself because last week Mexican officials arrested drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, and the next day Rolling Stone published an account of a secret meeting between the fugitive and Sean Penn.

The clandestine meeting took place in October, while law enforcement agents were still hunting El Chapo down. Now the drug kingpin is in custody in Mexico and many are wondering whether Sean Penn could be next. Did he break the law by meeting with El Chapo?

Chatting With El Chapo

When Sean Penn met with El Chapo, the drug kingpin was a wanted man, here in the US and in Mexico. So does that make meeting with him a crime?

The answer -- as it always is in the law -- is that it depends on specifics. Penn conducted an interview for a magazine. He writes about El Chapo as a man of about his age and compares their respective worlds.

"While I was surfing the waves of Malibu at age nine, he was already working in the marijuana and poppy fields of the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, he runs the biggest international drug cartel the world has ever known."

Should that fact have prevented Penn from meeting with El Chapo? Well, no, not legally speaking.

First Amendment Protections

Georgetown University Law School Professor Paul Rothstein, an expert in criminal law and procedure, tells People that knowingly visiting a fugitive is not a crime. "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."

Reporters can and do meet with wanted criminals to write stories. Even Osama Bin-Laden talked to reporters when he was on the run. No one in the press corps was ever arrested for it.

But that does not mean Penn is totally in the clear here. Everything depends on intent. To the extent that Penn somehow aided and abetted Guzman, he culd face criminal cosnequences. Rothstein says prosecutors could arguably call discussions of making a biopic aiding and abetting, but to some lawyers that seems a stretch.

"A lot will depend on how the meeting was arranged, and the entire purpose for which he went," said lawyer Mary Lou Woehrer, who represented Lawrencia "Bambi" Bembenek, a convicted American murderer who escaped prison and fled to Canada in 1990. "The visit seems pretty innocuous to me."

In any case, Penn states that he has nothing to hide, and law enforcement agents sound like they are not too riled up about the actor's foray into journalism. A Drug Enforcement Agency agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told People, "It's tempting to say that a moral transgression is a criminal act, but one does not automatically equal the other."

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