Ever since former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was arrested for lying to FBI agents, I have argued that he had a strong defense to that charge: namely, that his lies were not material because the FBI questioned him for an illegitimate purpose — to give him an opportunity to lie, rather than to obtain information it did not already have.
The question posed by the Flynn case is whether a lie can be material if the FBI already had indisputable evidence of the truthful answer and asked him the question for the sole purpose of giving him an opportunity to lie.
As a civil libertarian, I believe the answer should be “No.” The proper function of an FBI or a grand jury interrogation is to obtain information they do not already have, and not to create a new crime by giving the suspect the opportunity to pass or fail a morality test with criminal consequences. Related to materiality is the claim that a suspect cannot be convicted if the question was not within the proper function of the law enforcement agency that asked it.
My position has been attacked as lacking any basis in law. The influential legal blog, Above the Law, wrote an article titled “Dershowitz Invents New Materiality Standard to Protect Trump Cronies—Even Fox News Host Seems to Laugh it Off.” In it, the blogger wrote: “Professor Dershowitz decided to lend his spin to whatever narrative the Trump defense team outlines in exchange for an almost daily dose of Fox News appearances … materiality does not require investigators to rely upon the false statement. This is not only well-settled, but Dershowitz’s interpretation would also be a remarkably dumb standard.” Others have echoed these ad hominem attacks.
Well, it turns out that the issue is not “well-settled.” Nor did I invent it. In fact, two influential courts — the New York Court of Appeals, in an opinion by one of the most distinguished jurists of the 20th century, and the D.C. district court that is now preparing to sentence Flynn — have sided with my interpretation. (True civil libertarians, however, should be concerned about what the law and policy should be, regardless of whether there is a precedent.)
The logic of the courts is almost identical to the logic of my argument.
In The People v. Tyler, the New York court’s Chief Judge Charles Breitel reversed a conviction for perjury of a former public official who had lied about his connection to a well-known gambler. The court reversed the perjury conviction, holding that:
“The primary function of the Grand Jury is to uncover crimes and misconduct in public office for the purpose of prosecution … It is not properly a principal aim of the Grand Jury, however, to ‘create’ new crimes in the course of its proceedings. Thus, where a prosecutor exhibits no palpable interest in eliciting facts material to a substantive investigation of crime or official misconduct and substantially tailors his questioning to extract a false answer, a valid perjury prosecution should not lie.” – READ MORE