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How Sean Penn could get into legal trouble for interviewing criminal El Chapo

Following actor Sean Penn's bizarre interview with Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, there are some questions about whether Penn could face legal troubles for meeting and talking to the fugitive — who escaped from a Mexican prison just six months ago — without turning over information to the police.

I asked Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and current professor at Loyola Law School, about the issue. She told me the government is likely already working on the question: "There probably is some federal prosecutor just poring over the books and regulations saying, 'How can we get Sean Penn?'"

Levenson said it largely comes down to whether this kind of case would even fall under US jurisdiction, since El Chapo escaped from a Mexican prison. But if Penn did get into trouble with law enforcement, it could come down to an unexpected charge — a false statement to a federal official.

"I'm going to assume Penn got some legal advice before he did this," Levenson said. "But the one area where people tend to trip over or make mistakes is making false statements to a federal official — that can be somebody at the border or any context. If Penn misrepresented, made material omissions, or lied in making these arrangements, and went through a federal official, that's a five-year felony."

What about bigger charges? Aiding and abetting a fugitive and harboring a fugitive are unlikely because of intent, Levenson said: "The standard of proof is very high. You'd have to prove that the purpose of Sean Penn's visit was helping El Chapo avoid the authorities. And I'm going to assume Penn would say, 'That wasn't my purpose at all. And in fact, I would have been just as happy to see El Chapo caught by authorities. I just wanted information.'"

Of course, a lot of this falls into the realm of speculation. It's not clear from the write-up of the Rolling Stone interview whether Penn relayed any information to the authorities, although it's heavily suggested that he did not. And it's uncertain if Penn knew where El Chapo was, since he described a long, winding guided trip to get to the Mexican drug lord. (Rolling Stone did not respond to emails about the topic.)

But if Penn does get into trouble, a false statement is, according to Levenson, the most likely way it will happen.

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