An Open Letter to U.S. Olympic Swimmer Ryan Lochte: Lesson(s) Learned?
By Ken K. Gourdin
Dear Mr. Lochte:
As a threshold matter, let’s discuss what you were trying to cover up before being detained for lying to the police while celebrating your Olympic success in Rio. Enough alcohol + almost anyone = stupid. But if you hadn’t lied and had offered to pay for the damage you and/or your inebriated teammates caused, you would have emerged relatively unscathed. Rarely is the crime worse than the attempted cover-up.
I know, it was Rio, and everyone parties (read “drinks, and/or gets drunk”) in Rio. I guess what the U.S. swim team needs is at least one devout, Word-of-Wisdom-observing (and hence alcohol-eschewing) Mormon who can keep everyone out of trouble. (Mormon swimmers, this is a call to action! Your country needs you!)
Now, with that out of the way, on to my real reason for writing. Often, when we travel, we take our assumptions about the criminal justice system – such as being innocent until proven guilty, having a right to legal counsel, having a right to a jury trial in order to curb potential excesses by a judge or by a prosecutor, and so on – with us, and we tend to superimpose them onto whatever system prevails wherever we go.
Bad idea. The nanosecond we touch down on foreign soil, enter the territorial waters of a foreign country, or, arguably, enter a foreign country’s airspace, the rules change, and criminal justice rules or processes we used to take for granted no longer apply. You’ve heard the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? Well, it applies with special force in criminal justice matters.
Permit me a trivial example. I love Mexico and most things Mexican. (Yes, certain parts of the country are dirty and polluted; some are ridden with crime and corruption; but I learned to look deeper.) My love affair started (chastely) in grade school, when, as part of a pilot program, I was pulled out of regular classes for a period of time each day and exposed to Spanish language and Mexico’s culture, Mexican customs, and the country’s way of life.
I remember being fascinated even by mundane things such as vehiculos de la policia (police vehicles – my father spent 43 years in law enforcement) when, on my first visit to Southern California as a young boy, my family and I drove across the border to Tijuana and I saw firsthand many of the things I had been reading and hearing about.
Later on, the love affair deepened, as I received additional exposure to many of the things I had been fascinated by in grade school when I returned to the San Diego area for two years to do volunteer work then minored in Spanish in college after returning, finishing one class short of a double-major.
Yet even after all of this, I’ll never be caught dead driving in Mexico. Why not? Well, it’s true that I’ve had, perhaps, more than my share of fender-benders (and worse) over the years, several of which, I admit, were my fault (though not all of them were). But is being (perhaps) “crash-prone” all there is to it? No.
In Mexico, traffic accidents aren’t necessarily the relatively minor civil matter they’re usually considered in the United States. They’re also considered criminal matters, and if you’re in one, you’d better be prepared to fork over large amounts of cash (and/or had better have more than a casual acquaintance with someone who has connections) in order to avoid the complications of being ensnared in a criminal matter on foreign soil.
Here, you might get away with a simple slap on the wrist and an admonishment to not do it again, even for so serious a matter as lying to the police. Everywhere else, however, it’s their country, their rules, their criminal justice system and their possible complications (including extortion, bribery and corruption, perhaps), which makes it a whole new ballgame.
In any event, even without casting aspersions on any other justice system, you’d better be familiar with the rudiments (at the very least) of how that system operates, and had better know what to expect if you’re made to deal with it. And while this is no guarantee you won’t be innocently ensnared, it’s best to avoid doing things that cause you to become involved with such a system in the first place.”
And, as a parting matter, while it’s best to avoid behaving like the proverbial “ugly American” wherever we go and whatever our reason for going there, this is doubly so if one is representing one’s country, as you and your teammates were. You beat out plenty of swimmers for your spot on the team, at least some of whom would not even dream of misbehaving as you did and who would have been glad to have your spot.
Here’s (hopefully) to lessons learned.
Ken K. Gourdin