Mr. Craig's Plea

Saturday, September 15, 2007

AMINNESOTA court will probably reject the attempt of Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) to withdraw the guilty plea stemming from his arrest in a Minneapolis airport men's room, and rightly so. That doesn't mean that the sting operation that led to Mr. Craig's predicament was legitimate.

On June 11, an undercover officer who staked out the airport restroom claims, Mr. Craig used a series of signals to indicate interest in engaging in sex. Mr. Craig, the arrest report states, stared so long into the stall the officer occupied that the officer could tell that Mr. Craig had blue eyes; Mr. Craig then entered an adjoining stall and tapped his foot repeatedly, moved his foot to touch the officer's and swiped his hand several times underneath the stall divider.

Mr. Craig denied at the time -- and continues to deny -- that he solicited sex from the officer through these gestures. It's a real shame, then, that instead of fighting the charges, Mr. Craig mailed in a guilty plea to disorderly conduct -- seven weeks after the arrest. Mr. Craig should have been able to beat the charges because none of the gestures, in and of themselves, constitutes a crime. And Mr. Craig, even by the officer's account, did not expose himself or commit any other act that would have breached the law.

Mr. Craig faces an exceedingly difficult challenge in getting his plea thrown out, in large part because of his own actions. Most courts frown on revoking guilty pleas. In the Hennepin County, Minn., court, a defendant must prove that that plea was not "accurate, voluntary" or "knowingly and understandably made" in order to withdraw that plea. Mr. Craig insists he pleaded guilty because he was in a state of "intense anxiety" and "panic" after being arrested, especially because the arrest came so soon after he learned that the Idaho Statesman newspaper was investigating his sexuality. Because he was not represented by a lawyer, Mr. Craig argues he was "induced" to plead guilty by the officer's promise that the arrest would not be made public. He also says that if he'd presented his plea in person, a judge would have been compelled to reject the plea because it would be obvious that Mr. Craig did not believe in his own guilt.

These arguments probably don't meet the legal standard, and Mr. Craig is at fault for not consulting a lawyer and for waiving his right to appear before a judge. Yet it seems clear that he pleaded guilty because his priority was not exoneration but avoiding exposure. What's troubling is that the sting operation may have been counting on just that sort of motivation in order to extract guilty pleas from men who, in fact, had done nothing explicitly lewd or illegal.

Many or even all of those charged, including Mr. Craig, probably were in the bathroom in search of sex. No one is in favor of sex in airport restrooms or any other place where it may cause public offense. But as with any other crime, those targeted and arrested for lewd or disorderly conduct ought first to be caught in a lewd or disorderly act. That wasn't the case with Mr. Craig.

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