Sean Penn may end up in court over his secret meeting with fugitive Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera — a.k.a. “El Chapo” — but the actor likely won’t face criminal charges of his own.
Renowned Hollywood defense attorney Mark Geragos told TheWrap that Penn’s actions make this “a slam-dunk First Amendment” case, and that any online speculation of potential legal blowback for the “Mystic River” actor “is a joke.”
“There’s no way they’re going to get Sean Penn for anything,” he said. “There is no way that I can see any kind of legitimate prosecution that could come from this.”
“From a purely factual standpoint, I’m not so sure that his interview didn’t directly lead to the arrest of El Chapo,” Geragos continued. “If there’s a reward for his capture … Sean Penn may collect the reward!”
Las Vegas-based First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza agreed. Randazza told TheWrap that as long as Penn followed a few simple guidelines and got basic legal advice, he’s probably in the clear of any accusations of wrongdoing.
“I would presume that this guy — at the very least — talked to a lawyer before he did it,” Randazza said of Penn’s secret interview, which took place near Durango, Mexico, in October while the drug kingpin was a fugitive from justice.
Under American law, Randazza said, “A journalist is free to meet with and speak with [a fugitive] — as long as he’s not giving him any material support.”
“Material support” could amount to anything even as modest as “50 bucks and a burner cell phone,” Randazza said as an example. “I wouldn’t have even offered the guy one of my cigarettes,” the desert-based lawyer said, only half-joking.
In the unlikely event that Penn offered El Chapo material support, under U.S. law the actor could face charges of aiding and abetting a fugitive. But again, with money, fame, brains, and a smart legal team at his disposal, the chance of prosecution seems remote.
When contacted on Sunday, Penn’s publicists said they had no comment “at this time.” TheWrap did not immediately get a response from our requests of Penn’s litigator or transactional attorneys.
An attorney del Castillo did not immediately return TheWrap’s request for comment. Her agent had no comment.
Of course, even without charges, Penn may end up in a court of law.
The Hollywood star and activist could be subpoenaed to testify against El Chapo. While in a typical First Amendment media case in the U.S., a reporter may invoke “journalistic privilege” to avoid giving up a source, that doesn’t really apply here. It appears that everything between Penn and El Chapo was on the record, and any damning content is already in print, and thus, admissible.
The case of del Castillo is a little more intriguing to Randazza. Without accusing her of any wrongdoing, he wondered about her exact ties to the cartel. “Why would you be in a position to broker this meeting?” Randazza asked.
Geragos, though, said she shouldn’t sweat it either, “unless there’s some evidence that they were offering him money for his rights, for a life story.”
Penn interviewed the crime lord for Rolling Stone for seven hours, according to the article published on Saturday. In the account, El Chapo revealed the full details of his drug operation, as well as his escape from prison last summer.
The lengthy in-person and follow-up interviews by phone and video began in October, according to the article. At the time, El Chapo was one of the most wanted fugitives in the world. Penn wrote that the interview took place in a jungle clearing.
The Associated Press reported from Mexico that the interview with Penn ultimately led police to recapture El Chapo, who was taken into custody Friday in Los Mochis, Sinaloa after six months on the run.
El Chapo disappeared from Mexico’s highest security prison last summer, escaping via a mile-long tunnel that some said cost $1 million to build. Penn wrote in the article that the drug lord hired German engineers to build the tunnel.
Billed as El Chapo’s first on-record interview, he admitted to running a global drug network during their conversations.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” El Chapo told Penn. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
El Chapo was arrested Friday morning following a shootout with Mexican marines in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. He was then returned to the same maximum-security prison from which he had escaped.