Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When a Lie Should Be Prosecuted

When former BP CEO Lord John Browne stepped down from his position over the revelation of an embarrassing personal relationship, he admitted to lying to a British court to obtain an injunction preventing the publication of the story.  As discussed in an earlier post (here), his admission could be the basis for a perjury prosecution of the type we've seen in the United States in the past few years.  Professor Stuart Green, author of the book Lying, Cheating, and Stealing: A Moral Theory of White-Collar Crime, discusses the considerations that should go into a decision to prosecute someone for perjury in a post on the Oxford University Press Blog (here).  He writes:

In America, we’ve had more than our share of perjury cases to observe in recent years, involving such high profile figures as Bill Clinton, Scooter Libby (top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney), and John Poindexter (National Security Advisor to President Reagan). We’ve also had more than our share of disagreements about the wisdom of such prosecutions. Partisans of each of these figures have claimed that their prosecutions for perjury and other “cover-up” crimes (such as obstruction of justice and making false statements) have been unfair and unnecessary. Indeed, it often seems as if the way people feel about the merits of such cases turns more on their subjective feelings about the character of the person charged than with any objective facts about the person’s allegedly criminal conduct.  In my view, this is unfortunate. There are in fact impartial and objective factors that ought to be considered in determining whether to prosecute for perjury.

As discussed more fully in his book, Prof. Green recommends looking at the seriousness of the underlying conduct lied about, the circumstances surrounding the perjury, and the effect of the misstatement in deciding whether the case is worthy of a criminal prosecution.  In Lord Browne's case, he concludes that "[a]lthough the decision is more difficult than it may at first appear, my advice to Lord Goldsmith [the Attorney General] would be to exercise his discretion and refrain from prosecuting Browne for perjury."  For those with an interest in the foundations of white collar crime, I highly recommend Lying, Cheating, and Stealing -- it is well worth the time.  My review of the book is available here. (ph)

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