Could the White House Party Crashers Go to Jail?

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NBC Universal / AP

Tareq and Michaele Salahi are interviewed on the Today show about the White House state dinner they attended without invitations

Tareq and Michaele Salahi were hoping for reality-TV stardom when they strolled uninvited into a Nov. 24 White House state dinner. Legal experts say the party-crashing duo may have to settle for the reality of a courtroom fight instead — and possibly a prison cell.

"There's no question the Secret Service is likely to push very hard for a criminal charge," says Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University. "They are famous for lacking a sense of humor." It would be hard to blame them, given the circumstances. In an alarming security breach, the Salahis managed to schmooze with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and a slew of other top figures at the ornate event honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (Photos of their VIP hobnobbing were promptly posted on Facebook.) Though the couple passed through metal detectors, observers noted that they could have potentially smuggled in anthrax or other unconventional weapons as well as espionage tools like electronic listening devices. The House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled hearings on the intrusion for Dec. 3. The Salahis have been invited to testify, along with Secret Service director Mark Sullivan and White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. They have not publicly responded to the request.

The attention-hungry Virginia socialites broke their silence on Tuesday, appearing on NBC's Today show, where they insisted that they had permission to attend the gala dinner. "We were invited, not crashers. There isn't anyone that would have the audacity or the poor behavior to do that," Michaele Salahi said, but the couple did not specify who had issued the invitation. On the same program, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied that claim, saying, "You don't show up at the White House as a misunderstanding." The Salahis exchanged e-mails about attending the state dinner with a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But the assistant, Michele Jones, said she made clear to the pair that she could not extend an invitation.

This isn't the first time the Salahis have been accused of barging in on a glitzy Washington social function. The two attended a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner in September at which Obama spoke, reportedly entering through a door used by servers and busboys. After organizers determined that they were not on the guest list, the two were escorted out. In Tuesday's interview, the couple insisted that they were invited to that event as well.

It remains unclear just how the couple was allowed into the heavily guarded White House affair last month. The Secret Service is conducting an investigation and interviewed the couple last week. If the two somehow believed they had been legitimately invited and did not misrepresent themselves to authorities, experts say they most likely did not commit a crime. But if they lied to security officers manning the entrances, that could put them afoul of federal laws barring trespassing onto government property and making false statements to government officials.

"You've got an obligation to be honest when you're talking to the government or to government agents," says Michael O'Neill, criminal law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. Whether the Justice Department opts to prosecute the pair "would all be based on what it is they said to those agents." Even if the two were then welcomed into the White House, they could still face a trespassing charge if they were granted permission based on a lie.

The false-statements charge is a felony, and trespassing can be charged as a felony if it is committed in order to advance another felony crime. Each of the charges carries a prison term of up to five years, but experts call a long sentence highly unlikely. "You don't come across cases like this too often," says Orin Kerr, another George Washington law professor. "The trial judge would have a lot of discretion to pick an appropriate sentence."

Turley says many judges would forgo a prison sentence, considering the blow of a felony conviction along with fines or probation time ample punishment for first-time offenders. He also offered some advice for potential future scofflaws: If you're going to commit a crime, at least keep the photos off Facebook. "These people took something that would have been a memorable keepsake and turned it into criminal evidence," he says. "This act of vanity could cost them dearly."