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Be Careful when Speaking to Federal Agents - 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 (findlaw.com)
390 points by conover on Sept 16, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 176 comments

The most important paragraph if you're not interested in reading the whole thing:

Is there an intelligent alternative to lying or telling the truth that we have not yet examined? Yes. In our hypothetical interview, you can politely decline to be interviewed by the FBI agent. Tell the agent that you have an attorney and that "my attorney will be in contact with you." If the agent persists, say that you will not discuss anything without first consulting counsel. Ask for the agent's card, to give to your attorney. If you have not yet hired a lawyer, tell the agent that "I want to consult a lawyer first" or that "an attorney will be in touch with you." The absolutely essential thing to keep in mind is to say nothing of substance about the matter under investigation. It is preferable to do this by politely declining to be interviewed in the absence of counsel. If the agent asks "why do you need an attorney?" or "what do you have to hide?" do not take his bait and directly respond to such questions. (Do not even say that you have nothing to hide.) Simply state that you will not discuss the matter at all without first consulting counsel and that counsel will be in touch with him. If the agent asks for a commitment from you to speak with him after you have consulted or retained counsel, do not oblige him. Just respond that you will consult with your attorney (or "an" attorney) and that the attorney will be in touch. And by all means do not get bullied or panicked into making up a phony reason for refusing to talk. You are not obliged to explain your decision to anyone.

These three paragraphs also seem important:

“It is crucial to note that affirmatively declining to discuss the investigation in the absence of counsel is not the same thing as remaining completely silent. If you are not in custody, your total silence, especially in the face of an accusation, can very possibly be used against you as an adoptive admission under the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Your invocation of counsel, however, cannot be used against you at trial. United States v. McDonald , 620 F.2d 559, 561-64 (5th Cir. 1980). Your refusal to talk substance in the absence of counsel will force the prosecutor to decide whether your information is important enough to justify a grand jury subpoena for your testimony.

If the prosecutor responds to your declination by serving you with a grand jury subpoena, this will present you with an interesting range of options such as: 1) testifying; 2) refusing to testify, by invoking the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, which broadly applies to anyone , innocent or guilty, facing criminal exposure; 3) testifying (or talking to the government) only after receiving a grant of immunity; or 4) proffering to the government–that is, giving them a sneak preview of what you will tell them if they agree to grant you immunity. The important thing to remember is that declining to speak to the agent in the first place buys you time in which to weigh these alternative strategies with your white-collar criminal defense attorney.”

There are no downsides when you decline to talk, it gives you time to take a more considered approach and you can avoid errors you might make in the heat of the moment (when you are most likely stressed and maybe even panicked).

I will always decline answering questions, no matter the situation. There might be situations where talking is unproblematic but I don’t want to make that decision on the spot and when I’m stressed. I doubt my abilities to make right decisions in those situations. That’s why I made that decision now, and it’s to take the safest route: I decline.

You've both missed the most damning sentence in the entire document: To begin with, you are not qualified to know whether you are innocent of wrongdoing under federal criminal law.

That's what ought to keep people awake at night.

If the law was computer software, at this point it would be a giant unmanageable screwball of spaghetti code that would crash daily and would require patches 3 times a week.

It does, both of those. Except the patches are driven by lobbyist donations or ideological axe grinding rather than fixing defects, for the most part.

So it's exactly like software then :)

It's worse than that, if the law were software then it wouldn't even run on client machines, it'd only run on specialty hardware in the lab.

if ... 1000 dollar fine

else if ... 5 months jail

else if ... capital punishment

else if ... licence suspended

else if ... 3 years jail, 20000 dollar fine

// handle a few million more cases

else you're innocent

cases are rarely dismissed for this anymore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Void_for_vagueness

> To begin with, you are not qualified to know whether you are innocent of wrongdoing under federal criminal law.

In other news, barbers believe that everyone needs a haircut immediately.

(Both are the FUD sale. Lawyers employ it regularly, so get used to it.)

the point of having lawyer doing the talking instead of you (scroll down to the bottom of the page):


" GOOD is AARON SWARTZ’s attorney in Boston, MA. GOOD wanted assurance that if SWARTZ was interviewed, what he said would not be used to jeopardize him. SA [REDACTED] explained that assurance could not be given but that we were in an information gathering phase. GOOD refused the interview without the assurance.

April 20, Washington Field Office:

    CASE ID #: 288A-WF-238943 (Closed)"
One phrase from a lawyer made the difference between walking the painful path toward federal conviction for computer crime and "Case closed".

You could save a lot of money by never going to a barber and a lot of money by never speaking with a lawyer. Of course, you'll look like a fool in both instances.

Slightly off topic, but it's surprisingly easy to go your whole life without going to a barber. If you want short hair, go over your head with the number 3 guard every month or so. If you want long hair, never cut your hair at all, and you look awesome after a couple years. I haven't had my hair cut in eight years. Women come up to me on the street and tell me they're jealous of my hair. It's not that hard.

I'm intrigued by this, but seriously, how does one manage that much hair?

There are two secrets to this. One is that you don't actually need to wash your hair every day. The other is that masculine long hair styles are trivial.

Washing your hair every day puts more wear and tear on it, and it's time consuming. If you have short hair, you get away with this because you keep cutting your hair long before it gets worn out. So only once or twice a week will I actually wash my hair (and use conditioner, this actually becomes important with long hair). Most days, I tie it up into a bun before showering so it doesn't get wet. You might be able to find another solution. Depending on your water quality, your hair might smell gross if you just get it wet without washing or at least conditioning it.

After showering, I generally brush my hair, especially after washing it or if I want my hair down. If I'm in a hurry or it doesn't look good loose, I just tie it back in a ponytail. There is literally nothing else you have to do to make it look presentable. After a certain length it doesn't really get in your face unless it's especially windy or something. If you want it loose during some sort of physical activity, I've noticed a lot of longhaired footballers will wear a thin black hairband around the base of the skull and the hairline--if you do an image search for Leo Messi or Didier Drogba I'm sure you'll see what I mean.

Human hair actually stops growing at a certain point, or to be more precise it grows at the same rate that it gradually falls out over time leaving you with a consistent terminal length. Mine seems to be around the small of my back.

As you grow it out between an ordinary short hairstyle and shoulder length, you're likely to look kind of strange for awhile, and have no good way of managing your hair. On male longhair web forums, this period is usually referred to as "the awkward phase". You might be tempted to get haircuts so you can at least have a decent medium length style at this point, but really that only makes the awkward phase take longer. From a short hairstyle to shoulder length usually takes within 2 years, but only the middle part of that is likely to be too awkward. From short to shaggy it just kind of looks shaggy, and from almost-shoulder-length to shoulder length it just looks increasingly awesome, but there's a bit of an awkward gap between "nice and shaggy" and "almost shoulder length" where you can't tie it back, you can't quite keep it all tucked behind your ears, and it gets in your face.

One last point--I suspect my hair is naturally very attractive, so I'm certainly not going to guarantee that women will approach you on the street and say they're jealous of your hair if you grow it out. Generally, most styling and hair care above and beyond not cutting it, washing it, conditioning it, and brushing it does more harm than good in the long run. The whole point about barbers saying everyone needs a haircut rings very literally true--hairstylists and hairdressers will suggest a variety of treatments, products, chemicals, cuts, and other solutions to often completely imaginary, self-solving problems like split ends, based upon completely fictional notions about the physiology of hair.

And that is certainly more than I ever thought I'd have to say about hair on Hacker News.

The only way was to sneak it under a story about federal law. :)

self-solving problems like split ends

Could you explain that? I though split ends forced to cut one's long hair regularly.

Split ends aren't even noticeable unless you look closely at the tips of the hair. And they don't travel up the hair or anything, they stay put, one side breaks off and then the other side breaks off. I've not even looked for split ends for years and I have fantastic hair. It's a total non-problem that you can safely ignore.

Or you could try a sensible strategy: Consult someone other than a lawyer/barber about when to seek a lawyer/barber.

Could that just mean that "ignorance of the law is no defense"?

Not when knowledge is impossible.

>There are no downsides when you decline to talk,

Whilst I understand the principle, I'm not sure I 100% agree with this statement. I've been in a few situations in the past - demos/football matches etc - where declining to talk would quite likely have resulted in me being detained for questioning (and in some of those cases, for others who tried this approach, this was exactly what happened), but a polite answer to the cops resulted in them simply leaving me alone.

It's true that had the cops decided to nick me anyway, then anything I said could well have resulted in bigger problems than if I'd kept quite. But they didn't.

In my view, there are quite definitely some downsides to refusing to talk, but they are far lower than the downsides could be by talking.

The police isn't the same as a federal agent, although it's best to avoid talking to them too.

Ah. I'm British, so I'm not really aware of there being a difference (at least one of my "talking my way out of trouble" incidents happened when I was working in Texas though - but it wasn't a federal agent).

There are no downsides when you decline to talk

Doesn't the highlighted section actually note that silence can be used against you? It would seem you need to decline to talk and request counsel, if I understood correctly.

You have the right to ask for your attorney. If you don't say anything, that might be used against you.

I remember seeing this talk some time ago - simply titled 'don't talk to the police'. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc

yep that's a fantastic video

But also note: Part of why Bernie Madoff lasted so long was that he arrived for an SEC investigation without a lawyer. Everyone in the room thought he had nothing to hide, so they didn't pursue him.

Whether we want to admit it or not: It's ingrained that you are inviting an investigator to hassle you further by invoking a right to counsel. (For the record: I think that sucks too.)

I'd rather not take cues from Bernie Madoff on legal matters.

You missed my point: One strategy that should be safe is telling the god's-honest truth. But even with the truth, you invite a whole lotta hassle by bringing a lawyer.

Conversely: Even if you're a dishonest crook, you get the feds off your back by omitting a lawyer.

This is not how it should be; It is how it is.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in prison right now who arrived for their interview with the authorities without a lawyer. I'm not sure your theory actually pans out.

(Madoff wasn't caught when the SEC first investigated because they thought he was front-running orders, not a giant Ponzi scheme. They were looking for the wrong thing.)

I have to disagree with what you said about the SEC. According to Markopolos' book, the SEC wouldn't have caught him even if he was front-running. It's not that they were looking for the wrong thing. They just didn't look.

This guy was the former chair of NASDAQ and had friends in high places. Your chances of getting the same red carpet treatment from the Feds are effectively zero. Hire a lawyer.

You point is : if you're a talented con artist who was able to con $50B out, then you would mislead/charm/fend off a SEC or any other investigator better than a lawyer. I'm completely agree with you here. For the rest of us - talk to your lawyer first.

Actually, use of the word "truth" is itself leading. What's illegal is not lying to the government, because the government is not magically capable of telling that you are lying. What's illegal is giving the government information that the government interprets such that the government determines it conflicts with what the government determines be the official-truth.

That the SEC investigators were completely incompetent helped him far more. See Harry Markopolos' book "No One Would Listen" for support of my "completely incompetent" claim: http://www.amazon.com/No-One-Would-Listen-Financial/dp/04709...

One can hardly consider Bernie Madoff a paragon of astute judgment. I'll admit this is argumentum ad hominem, but his tolerance for risk was insane. Also notable is that he declined counsel when he really needed it, which is different than doing the same thing when you are secondary or tertiary to the investigation.

> this is argumentum ad hominem, but his tolerance for risk was insane.

That's the crucial point.

The Mandoff saga reflected more on investigators abilities than on Mandoff's in my opinion. The SEC having botched 6 investigations of Mandoff so badly that even Mandoff couldn't understand it. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/business/31sec.html?pagewa...

That said, what you say can be held against you. What your lawyer says for you can't so much. Which is why even lawyers may want to have lawyers.

Sorry about the repeated misspelling of Madoff. It won't let me edit it now.

Who's "Mandoff"?

> The Mandoff saga reflected more on investigators abilities than on Mandoff's in my opinion.

That is exactly the point. Nobody shows up with a lawyer because they want transparency above and beyond the call of duty.

Investigators will take the need for a lawyer as having something to hide. Arriving without a lawyer says the opposite.

But apparently several posters above don't believe so.

I think regardless of what investigators think if you bring a lawyer, you have a much better chance of avoiding incriminating yourself (even if you don't believe you've done anything wrong!) if you bring one.

If you have done something wrong (again, whether you know it or not), you'll likely have a better outcome with a lawyer present from the start that without.

But if you actually haven't done anything wrong, the lawyer can still help you avoid accidentally telling a "lie" or getting yourself into a situation you don't know how to handle. Even if the investigators believe you're hiding something just because you lawyered up, if you genuinely did nothing wrong, there's not much they can do... aside from making up evidence and framing you, or believing unreliable witnesses telling lies about you... which could happen in any case.

The bottom line (as stated in the article) is that you are not qualified to know whether or not you have or have not truly done anything illegal. A lawyer will be much better able to help you make that determination and guide your interaction with the authorities for your benefit.

I actually don't think you understand the parent's point. The SEC was incompetent. They weren't capable of finding Madoff's fraud.

>Part of why Bernie Madoff lasted so long was that he arrived for an SEC investigation without a lawyer. Everyone in the room thought he had nothing to hide

Got a source for that?

Madoff ‘astonished’ SEC did not catch him, FT, Oct 2009


It falls a bit short of backing up the claim "[e]veryone thought he had nothing to hide", but it's along those lines.

Thats bit like saying a lawyer didn't bring a lawyer to a police interview. He had expertise and experience that would of helped him avoid common pitfalls. Almost every normal person does not have the expertise to execute that kind of gambit properly.

"Why do you need an attorney? What do you have to hide?"

I need one because it was important enough put in the Constitution. What have you got against the Constitution?

In practice, such people will often threaten you. They are experts at this, and can easily get under most people's skin. This is why most people fold and give up their rights. Out of fear.

What if they bring you in and detain you for not cooperating with the investigation? Under some reason? Are there laws for that?

Basically they take a risk when they do that, but they can only hold you for 72 hours (at least here in Toronto). There are avenues that you can take to get back at them for that though, such as class action lawsuits.

A Hispanic former coworker of mine was wrongfully arrested then beaten with phone books by some thugs at the Toronto police. He got lucky, it was a case of mistaken identity and even though they found a small amount of weed on him they let him go completely and he was given a card with a cops phone number on it. He has had to use it 3 times since.

He's an apprentice tradesman and lives in a poor area of Toronto so when I told him to sue, he said "Sue? For what? Damages? I've been beaten up worse before by the people they're trying to catch. I live in a bad neighborhood and the officer who gave me his car and I have an understanding now."

Pretty messed up. When you don't look or sound like the people that know these little loopholes in the system you get to deal with what I consider to be a couple steps up from a mob. Some of them are awesome, for example cops have helped me get out of a snow bank before and didn't write me up for a driving infraction. Some of them are generally nice and will smile at you on the street or laugh with you as they give you a ticket, but they have power and some of them, especially those that have to deal with messed up shit in the ghettos abuse it.

This is really great advice. I'd just emphasize to be honest about whether you have an attorney or whether "an attorney will be in touch" with him. Awesome article conover, thanks for posting.

Since you have nothing to hide, is it safe to talk? There can still be real danger in speaking to a government agent in these circumstances. To begin with, you are not qualified to know whether you are innocent of wrongdoing under federal criminal law.

Critical system failure. There should be red lights blinking and klaxons wailing.

Also, if you say something inconsistent, no matter how trivial, whether it has anything to do with the alleged crime or not, even if you are completely innocent, it will likely destroy your credibility in front of the jury and thus they will believe whatever paranoid fantasy the prosecution makes up. It could be something as trivial as you came back from your trip two months ago in the afternoon not in the evening as you had claimed, for example.

If you say something inconsistent, you've lied to a federal officer, which is itself good for a prison term, as Martha Stewart learned (leaving aside the actual lie, which if I recall correctly was asserting that she did not do something which they couldn't get enough evidence of her doing to convict her for it...).

"Ignorance of the law excuses no man: Not that all men know the law, but because 'tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to refute him." - John Selden

I'm not defending the ridiculously complicated U.S. Code but, even if it was much simpler, there is no way you can honestly say, "I know I did nothing illegal."

That's a subtly different point. Its ok that ignorance of the law can't be used as a defense. That an honest person who attempts to study the law so that they can comply with it has basically no chance of succeeding is the problem.

Short of some form of becoming a lawyer, what percentage of the general population, or even just those following HN, have ever read a nontrivial amount of actual law? any laws at all?

(Took me years to comprehend just NY weapons laws.)

Ignorance of the law is the norm. When the laws one is subject to can be measured in cubic yards, something is awry. Contrast with the entire US Constitution fitting on one piece of paper.

I spend a considerable amount of time studying case law and I can say confidently that I have no idea whether I am committing a crime even doing something that seems to me to be completely innocuous such as sitting in my office posting on HN right now. In fact, I suspect I probably am in some obscure way that never occurred to me. Actually, there is a way that occurs to me. The article said "if you lie to your employer on your time and attendance records and, unbeknownst to you, he submits your records, along with those of other employees." My employer does have some government contracts and it's possible I am not supposed to be using the computer for personal reading. Perhaps my time now, even though after a solid 8 hr day, accounts by percentage of total work per day which is being reported to the government. By posting on HN I am defrauding the government of the taxpayer's hard earned cash. So actually I probably am committing a serious crime, see, I didn't even have to think to hard to come up with a possibility. Maybe someone will say this is not a crime, but how can they really know? Just because I haven't been charged yet doesn't mean this isn't illegal. Now the rest of life is the same way. It's possible that every minute of the day some crime is being committed unwittingly by myself. Talking to police and saying anything at all virtually guarantees that they will be made aware of some sort of illegal activity that I am engaged in. Perhaps I watered my lawn at the wrong hour. Maybe I failed to signal before changing lanes. Maybe I accidentally threw away a lithium battery that wasn't supposed to go to the landfill.

Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvey Silverglate: http://www.amazon.com/Three-Felonies-Day-Target-Innocent/dp/...

"The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague. In Three Felonies a Day, Harvey A. Silverglate reveals how federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from the English common law tradition and how prosecutors can pin arguable federal crimes on any one of us, for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. The volume of federal crimes in recent decades has increased well beyond the statute books and into the morass of the Code of Federal Regulations, handing federal prosecutors an additional trove of vague and exceedingly complex and technical prohibitions to stick on their hapless targets. The dangers spelled out in Three Felonies a Day do not apply solely to “white collar criminals,” state and local politicians, and professionals. No social class or profession is safe from this troubling form of social control by the executive branch..."

Don't forget all of the stuff that you can not do that will also land you in the klink. Damned if you do damned if... never mind, just skip right to damned.

Which is an excellent reason for a trail by jury. It leaves open a chance for a jury to decide "this is bullshit!" There's of course a legal term for that, but I'll be damned if I remember it, IANAL and all...

I believe you're thinking of jury nullification.

I had a collage assignment where I read a fair amount of laws relating to computer crimes. The problem is not reading the law it's lacking the context to understand what it means outside of the most trivial cases. Consider, if you sneeze and cause a traffic accident other factors are far more important than the sneeze, but in some cases it might reduce your culpability.

An honest person can attempt to do that, and they are called "lawyers." Again, it is way too easy to run afoul of the U.S. Code. I get that. But, even if that wasn't true, it would still not be advisable to speak to law enforcement officers.

An honest person can attempt to do that, and they are called "lawyers."

I am in law school right now, and the first thing I learned is how little I know, the second is how little I will know about the entirety of the law when I graduate.

More recently I started realizing how quickly even law professors and experienced lawyers will plead ignorance (or at least state they need time for research) when you ask questions even slightly outside their specialty.

The definition of "lawyer" is not "a person who earnestly tries to comply with the law." Lawyers have a particular role in the legal system that goes well beyond merely being a law-abiding citizen.

The definition of "lawyer" is "someone who has graduated from law school" while "attorney" is "someone who is licensed to practice law." There are people who are one of those things but not the other.

In America, a lawyer and an attorney are one and the same; both refer to licensed practitioners of the law. You do not come become a lawyer merely by going to law school (except in Wisconsin, if you go to a law school in Wisconsin).

People who graduate from law school but who do not become licensed to practiced are referred to as "law graduates" or "JDs" (after the degree).

Even a lawyer would have to be superhuman to achieve that, unless we extent his being to include a law library and his colleagues.

> Since you have nothing to hide, is it safe to talk?

Since you typically have nothing to gain by talking to law enforcement, why would you? It's all downside.

The problem is if nobody talks to law enforcement, it's going to be very difficult for society to function properly.

Tell them: "If you really feel that way, you can always write your local congressman to repeal 18 USC Section 1001. Until that law is removed, I really do not have a choice."

Eh, you can always drop dimes anonymously if you know something. (I mean, you can now. Hopefully that will remain possible.) And there will always be people who talk to the police; they're just people with a tenuous understanding of risk versus reward.

I think the problem he is addressing is that third parties suffer due to inefficient investigation if you are a witness of a crime.

Well said. It's not like you get brownie points or cash if you talk to them, give them helpful information, or prove your innocence.

This advice also applies to any situation involving law enforcement officers, not just federal agents.

Remember, "Don't Talk to Cops": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8z7NC5sgik

So let's say a kid goes missing. The cops come around the area she was last seen asking people if they saw her. They are trying to narrow down where and when she disappeared.

Everyone else is cooperative, but I'm not.

I've now drawn attention to myself and am probably going to be in for a lot of scrutiny, and at some risk for getting into trouble even if I had nothing to do with the girl's disappearance.

According to many competent advisors (such as in the don't talk to police video), the problem here arrives when it turns out that a security camera shows that you did see the girl. You said you didn't, but the video proves you are lying. Of course you will say that you didn't realize you had seen her or you thought they meant a different girl. Of course that is exactly what her kidnapper would claim, strengthening their case. Now they have probable cause to arrest you. Since you feel you have nothing to hide and it's all a misunderstanding, you answer their questions, but your memory is wrong several times. Now it's looking really bad and they are telling you if you just tell them where the little helpless girl is buried so that the parents can have some peace, they'll ask the district attorney to consider taking the death penalty off the table.

All could have been avoided by saying "I'll have my attorney contact you" and later he contacts them with the message "Mr. TZS knows nothing about this case as far as he knows."

They wouldn't have probable cause to arrest me in the hypothetical you give. At best they would have probable cause to bring me in for questioning (at which point I'm getting an attorney), or to perhaps get a warrant to search my home (depending on just what the security camera shows).

If I were to take your suggestion and avoid the initial question by having my attorney answer it--nothing changes because they still have the security video showing I saw the girl, so now they will just think I'm lying through my attorney install of lying directly, and I'm still going to end up getting brought in for questioning and possibly have my house searched.

>nothing changes because they still have the security video showing I saw the girl, so now they will just think I'm lying through my attorney install of lying directly, and I'm still going to end up getting brought in for questioning and possibly have my house searched.

you seems to miss the point of getting an attorney.

Two things:

Presumably the comparison of what you say vs. what the video camera shows will happen after when you talk (plus if they know you've seen her their approach to you is likely to be different).

You lawyer will presumably know how word your statements so they are both true and won't get you caught in this sort of scenario. I'm not sure what works for real, but think of the difference between the statements "I didn't see her" and "I don't recall seeing her." Both say the same thing, but the former is obviously more dangerous.

Again, it comes down to the question of "What's in for you?" Nowadays there's pretty much nothing but downsides for you with no upside aside from the occasional situation where saying something will avoid your getting taken in for questioning or worse.

This is something that comes up a lot in the concealed carry/self defense community. Missouri requires a thorough 8 hour course to get a license and the one I attended was taught entirely by police, most or all of them still active in one way or another. Their advice, and they said they didn't like saying this---and I'll note SW Missouri is very favorably inclined towards legitimate self-defense---was that you shouldn't talk to them but retain a lawyer and speak through him.

It's probably best to avoid the police if possible if you have no information to offer. If you do have information, you can talk with a lawyer about the right way to present it, or take sufficient steps to make yourself anonymous (perhaps by having your lawyer perform all communication).

I do agree that in cases like that, you will make it harder for yourself if the police stop and ask you and you refuse to say anything. I think the talk linked refers more to people who are considered potential suspects rather than witnesses.

Never means never. Watch the video, it's crystal clear.

What everyone else is doing doesn't matter. You can't talk your way out of being investigated.

>if I had nothing to do with the girl's disappearance.

care to elaborate how your talking would help then?

Telling them something like "Yes, I saw the girl ride by on her bike this morning while I was getting the mail--I don't know the exact time but I usually go get the mail around 10ish", or "Sorry, Officer, but I was indoors most of the day and don't recall seeing anyone go by" or similar things helps me because it makes me fit into the herd (the rest of the neighborhood).

Being the only person who won't make such a simple statement is practically shouting out "INVESTIGATE ME! I SHOULD BE A MAIN SUSPECT!". At the very least that will lead to considerable hassle and expense.

Again, with this scenario you don't realize they have a security video of her a mile away at 10ish. You actually saw a different girl, but since you testified you saw her at 10 at a certain location and they have proof she wasn't there, that proves you are lying and have something to hide. Clearly you are the killer who has inserted himself into the investigation with the goal of misleading them.

What do you mean "again"? That's your scenario and it and even its variations are rare. In the likely scenario, you stand out like a sore thumb every single time.

Whenever this comes up on HN, I find the pattern of comments to be a little baffling, in that very few people want to acknowledge that there are significant downsides to this.

One that isn't mentioned is that, frankly, I don't trust cops nearly as much as you'all seem to. I've been in dodgy situations with cops. I've been pulled over by cops on a dark, out of the way road, and it made me nervous. There is zero chance I'm not cooperating with him as much as I can under those circumstances.

I believe that would be a good case for driving the normal speed until you get to a well lit area. If you want, get out your phone and inform the police of your intent.

I would never pull over on a "dark, out of the way road".

Might be why I've heard the advice of informing 911 of the situation. They would tell the police officer, and everything would probably be ok.

> Mary Ann Viverette, the President of the International Association of Cheifs of Police [...] but she also thinks Karen was smart to follow her instincts in that situation.

Finding out afterwards that you're the last person to see her doesn't have as much upside as you think it does.

This is exactly what the police would say to get you to talk!

Indeed. Notable from that video is the fact that the police may lie to you when trying to get you to talk. Is general many of these things sound like reasonable law enforcement rights to me, but not that one.

First off, the issue is not how it would help them, it is how it would help you. And tzs explained how it would help you: it would keep the investigators from getting suspicious of you, and possibly making your life harder.

As an aside, it would also help the investigators, by not distracting them with irrelevant suspicious behavior.

i guess you didn't watch the youtube link flying around. Otherwise you'd understand how slight mistake in your talking - you washed your car on Tuesday, not on Wednesday 3 weeks ago - would _help_ you in that investigation and "keep the investigators from getting suspicious of you".

>As an aside, it would also help the investigators, by not distracting them with irrelevant suspicious behavior.

and that too.

If they don't have any evidence against you, drawing attention to yourself does absolutely nothing to get you into trouble. If they do have evidence against you, they were going to crucify you with or without your help, and refusing to say anything makes it harder for them.

What you really need to weigh it against is the fact that you don't want crimes to happen in your community. I think the thing to do is pay attention, and as soon as they seem to go from talking to you as a witness to interrogating you as a suspect, shut the fuck up. If you are a suspect, they might start off treating you as a witness so you lower your guard. Don't lower your guard, be careful to only make true statements ("I don't recall X" is always better than "I didn't do X" or "I didn't see X").

From personal experience, being questioned by police is very, very draining and difficult, especially when you are innocent. And they're assholes when they question you.

Like everything in life, it's a matter of risk/reward. /shrug.

They should make this required viewing in high school civics classes. do they even have those any more?

The most rational strategy for a US citizen is to treat an officer like the worst enemy, a sleazebag who will go out of their way to fuck said citizen over? There is something deeply wrong with this country.

It's not the officer personally, but there is a massive impersonal system of wheels and gears turning to result in him contacting you. It's easy for an innocent person to get sucked in and crushed by such machinery.

What reason is there to assume any differently?

For that matter, what advantage is there for you to assume any differently? (tip: there is none.)

That's his point. In a well run society, this would not be the case.

In a well run society,

Who is running society?

Half my reason for asking is to be a smart-ass, but the other half is to ponder:

Might the problem be that somebody or some group thinks they have (a) the authority, (b) the ability, and (c) the necessary information, to run our lives?

I agree. I think in general the absolute best societies can only happen when authorities step back and let people do as they think is best. The paradox is that this can also make it possible for the absolute worst societies to form. It depends on the way individual people decide to regulate themselves.

Personally, I like the idea of anarchy in an attempt to get the best society possible even if it results in a less perfect one in practice.

It doesn't matter how fucked up or well run the society is. So long as the justice system is implemented anything like it currently is this will be the case.

Oddly enough I was thinking about this very thing today. IN a society, laws are established to invoke precision, but people tend to operate on generalities. For example, speed limits on roads have to be a precise number so that there is an established standard, and in general a cop won't pull you over for doing 37 mph in a 35 zone. However they technically can throw the book at you if they want due to the precision of the law.

I don't know how this can be fixed though. At the moment we have to rely on judges to save us from the precision of the law, and we all know that judges can be just as corrupt/resentful/bored/petty as the rest of us.

I think that is not true in general. Consider, for example, the charge of reckless driving.

I think (although have no data) that there are probably more laws requiring human judgment than are based on strictly numerical criteria. Off the top of my head, the various degrees of murder, perjury, hate crimes, divorce settlements, and probate court. These all may have very specific criteria to meet them, but there is no way an algorithm could determine innocence or guilt.

The only numerical laws I can think of are speed limits and the lines between grand theft / theft.

A good test might be, "if every single person obeyed this law strictly as it is written, would society still operate the way we intend?" (c.f. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Work-to-rule )

The justice system in most of Europe is implemented based on the same principles. I wouldn't have any qualms about talking to a German or French cop or national security agent.

You are seriously deluding yourself if you think that the situation is better in Germany or France. Just for instance, evidence found in an illegal search is valid in German courts. This is abused by German cops all the time. And just as in the US, there are almost zero repercussions for this kind of stuff.

And most people don't have any qualms about talking to American cops.

That doesn't mean a thing.

An officer is trying to gather evidence against someone, whom they have strong reason to believe is guilty. If the most expedient means for this is to threaten to fuck you over, they will do it.

The words "threaten to" are extraneous.

Agreed, it's incredibly disappointing. But I've seen it firsthand, so, thank you but I'll be contacting my attorney before continuing to speak.

what bothers me the most about these kind of articles is the underlying assumption that I can find a good criminal lawyer when the need arises.

I'm having enough trouble finding good engineers, and that is something that I am qualified to do, as well as able to spend several months on, under very little pressure.

I have very little experience with lawyers, but at least for corporate lawyers, my impression is that the average lawyer doesn't know everything about their field, just like the average programmer doesn't know everything about their field. I wonder how many of these pitfalls are something that an average lawyer wouldn't know to avoid.

Yeah, no kidding. I just walked (stumbled) through a short-sale turned Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure. If I had a dime for every time they told me that I should consult "my attorney", I may have actually had enough dimes to afford one. I finally did ask, "do you actually talk to middle class people like myself that keep attorneys and accountants on retainer?" I mean the whole point of the process is that I could no longer afford to pay for my mortgage, wouldn't it be a little suspect if I were able to afford an attorney???

Here's the solution. You need at least one good lawyer in your life that you trust. You must have an attorney that has set up your investments, your estate, perhaps a family attorney that helped your parents. A competent, honest attorney. These are hard to find so like with a good car mechanic when you find one you hold on to them and treat them well.

Now when you need a specialty attorney at short notice because you've been arrested for murder or are being sued for patent infringement you ask your trusted attorney for a recommendation. The recommendation will go to a good attorney and not the fly by night shyster that advertises at 2AM on the local TV station. This attorney may be extremely expensive of course, but this is how I have found specialty lawyers at short notice. It is critical you have a trusted attorney that you have a relationship with though, otherwise you risk ending up flipping through the phone book at the jail some day.

How would I find such a lawyer? So far, the closest I've ever come to needing or wanting an attorney is when I bought my house. At this moment, the only outstanding legal issue I can think of is that I need a will drawn up. Is that sufficient for approaching a lawyer and "seeing how it goes?"

Yes, that's a good start, if in most US states you'll want a living trust set up in addition to a will which avoids the legal costs of probate court for your heirs. Last time I changed towns I went through three lawyers to talk about setting up a living trust in the new state. The first three had serious issues. The fourth didn't and is now my basic attorney. I think batting 0.25 isn't bad all things considered, it really is like looking for a good contractor or mechanic, most of whom are either not competent or are dishonest. But there are always competent honest people out there if you can find them. Competent, honest and cheap you can't get. You'll have to pick 2. Once you have a professional you know you can trust, stick with them.

It's not possible to just pick a good one randomly the first time yourself except when you are lucky. However, it's not any more difficult than getting a good mechanic, which is why I keep using that analogy.

I should mention that when in a new town do not trust recommendations made by others who are not professionals who work in the system as peers. Others will recommend their friends or relatives, or someone that helped someone they know in a bind once. This is very different from the high respect of an honorable peer, which is why you want a good attorney to be recommending the specialty lawyer and not your coworker, pastor, or waitress.

Consider the $800-$1500 you'll spend on a routine living trust a down payment on a good lawyer.

It's something I've wondered in the past as well. There are pretty good odds that every single person has broken at least one law in their lives, and as surveillance and storage capacities increase, it's only going to get easier to dragnet them if you need some leverage on a person.

There seem to be at least a couple of companies that offer legal services insurance[1][2], but it's difficult to tell from their sites if they cover criminal/potential criminal interview services under the circumstances described in the article.

I also have no idea what sort of price you'd expect to pay. The ARAG Legal Calculator suggests ~$5k for a misdemeanor, but they've got something of a conflict of interest in quoting prices. Their stat of $283/hr average seems to be sourced though.[4]

I think there are some free(ish) options, the UK has Legal Aid[3], and I think in the US there's some Public Defender provisions (although you might have to be already under arrest for that to apply).

I'd imagine there's definitely some sort of market opportunity for connecting people to competent legal advisors quickly. Ideally something usable with your "one phonecall".

[1] http://www.das.co.uk/

[2] http://www.araggroup.com/

[3] http://www.legalservices.gov.uk/

[4] "Average attorney rate in the United States of $284 per hour for attorneys with 11 to 15 years of experience, Survey of Law Firm Economics, Incisive Legal Intelligence, July, 2009."

One thing you can say which the officers are legally obliged to contend with (I think) is that you refuse to make any statements without consulting your state appointed attorney. The government is required by law to provide you an attorney if you can't afford one.


If you can't afford one and you are make less than a low threshold above the local poverty limit.

The test looks at assets and income, ignoring liabilities (except for necessary ongoing medical expenses).

To add to that, I believe it's mainly for criminal charges, there are other legal situations in which you may not be provided a lawyer (income limits or not). An example would be a civil forfeiture where you could have assets seized and whether you can retain a public defender or not is up to the judge, not a right.

My thoughts exactly.

However, I just assumed I was being too cynical.

For example, if you lie to your employer on your time and attendance records and, unbeknownst to you, he submits your records, along with those of other employees, to the federal government pursuant to some regulatory duty, you could be criminally liable.

Is there anything in the law that makes the "pursuant to some regulatory duty" relevant here? For example, if you wrote something on Wikipedia that you knew was inaccurate, and years later a federal official read it and found it somehow relevant to his job, would you theoretically be breaking this law?

IANALOAJ, but yes, technically that would be a crime in those circumstances. It seems unlikely you'd be prosecuted of course but who can say?

Yes. It's not criminally illegal to lie to your employer about hours worked. On the other hand, if you're lying to your employer about hours worked on a government contract, that may be a different story.

What most armchair lawyers forget (or never learned) is that intent is a fundemental element for any crime involving more than token (i.e., small fine) punishment. In the example above, if you don't intend to defraud the federal government when lying to your lawyer, it's not a crime.

When members of congress lie when speaking to other members of congress, why aren't they held to this law?

The government, and its agents, are exempt from most laws.

How so? I can't think of where that would hold true, aside from certain liability issues and other circumstances where it would be impractical or contrary to the public interest.

Because the government is sovereign entity and can only be sued if it allowed itself to be sued. In fact it is exactly the opposite, the government allows itself to be sued in some tort cases (the liability you mention), in some cases involving IP, and even there you don't get a trial by jury -- a federal judge will decide if the federal govt. is guilty or not (yeah I know...).

Right but we're not talking about lawsuits. We're talking about criminal law and government agents being bound by laws.

They have Constitutional immunity for anything they say in either house of Congress: "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place" (Art. I, Section 6).

For an Australian example -- a senator recently named a Priest accused but not charged of rape. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-13/xenophon-names-alleged...

Said in Parliament as otherwise it could be considered defamation (ie -- The priest has not been proven guilty in a court)

Perhaps because they write the laws?

It saddens me that the best advice for so many situations is "Get a lawyer". Besides the fact that they are expensive I find it frustrating that society has become that adversarial.

No, it's not society that has become adversarial, it is the vague and far-reaching laws.

Tangentially related - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/business/26nocera.html?pag...

In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments.

After acknowledging that he had been speculating in real estate during the bubble to help support his running, he said, according to Mr. Nordlander’s grand jury testimony, “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making four hundred thousand grand a year when he knew I wasn’t.”

Mr. Engle added, “Everybody was doing it because it was simply the way it was done. That doesn’t make me proud of the fact that I am at least a small part of the problem.”

Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire.

Reminds me of the awesome lecture "Don't talk to the police" by Prof. James Duane (J.D., Harvard Law):


I am so glad this article is out and I read it. It may be extreme but as someone who has witnesses this type of thing go down, I live with the knowledge that we are all one false accusation away from complete ruin. EVERYTHING can be made to look malicious and calculated, and we should all, in this context, live in fear of the government. Stay out of their crosshairs and keep your attorney phone number close by.

This is an interesting and useful perspective, and it's not the first time it's come up on HN, but it's unfortunate that it doesn't draw any thoughtful criticism.

This advice is best when one is implicated or thinks there's any chance they'd be implicated...but then anyone with the slightest awareness of the legal system learns about this at a pretty young age. This particular advice gets its sensationalism and counterintuitiveness by claiming that it's a universal rule. As a universal rule, it has its downsides.

One downside is that, if everyone does this, we make it far harder for law enforcement to do worthwhile investigations. Programmers hate when roadblocks prevent us from iterating quickly during development. Understand, other occupations also suffer from the same crunch on their time that we do and, as a community that's all in this together, we benefit from their work.

Another downside is promoting an adversarial role between law enforcement and its citizenry. This is an intangible, but I think its costs are real.

Also, you'd better be very confident that the cop(s) will simply respect your rights under the law. I know of situations where that has not been the case. I've seen videos where it wasn't the case. We've all read stories where it wasn't the case.

It's easy to fantasize stories about you being wrongfully singled out or, heaven forbid, convicted. We've also all read stories about that. Just like everything in life, then, it's a cost/benefits analysis. But don't pretend that one choice is all benefits and no costs.

I think the speed of modern news dissemination is warping our risk assessment software. Things that you'd only hear of rarely are reported several times a day now, because there's 6 billion people having bad things happen to them, the news only cares about those bad things, and our attention for those bad things is the same size as ever. The bad things per attention minute is rising all the time. Partly because of this, and partly because we are the way we are, there's a penchant by some in my geeky, libertarian community to withdraw as citizens, and overestimate downside risk. Yes, you expose yourself to risk by rescuing that drowning man; yes, you expose yourself to risk by finding that lost girl's mom; yes, you expose yourself to risk by cooperating with authorities. And, you know what, I think it should be worth it to you.

As a side note, attorneys are very familiar with the system and feel confident about fighting it head on, and many attorneys are willing to lead a high stress, confrontational life style. One should bear that in mind when taking advice about how to lead one's life.

> Another downside is promoting an adversarial role between law enforcement and its citizenry. This is an intangible, but I think its costs are real.

This is caused by law enforcement/state prosecutors taking an adversarial role against citizens, not citizens responding in kind.

It's like the classical prisoner's dilemma. Yes, it would be better for all involved if everyone chose to co-operate. But when one side persistently takes the adversarial approach, it would be stupid for the other side not to do the same.

> As a side note, attorneys are very familiar with the system and feel confident about fighting it head on, and many attorneys are willing to lead a high stress, confrontational life style.

This is, in fact, why you should always talk to an attorney when it comes to dealing with law enforcement.

There's a new book out about the complexity of American law. It's titled "Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent" by Harvey Silverglate


This is an unjust law, period.

Now that is the core issue here. Not that there is something wrong with "the system" or that law is "too complicated," but that this law is unjust.

This law is broader than I'd prefer but I don't see how it's clearly unjust. Do you feel the same way about perjury? If not, what's the dividing line between the two?

Perjury requires you to be giving testimony under oath. This law covers any and all conversations however casual.

Furthermore perjury requires the act to be willful and the item under question to be of material importance to an investigation. This law requires only that the statement be known by the speaker to be incorrect and however trivial.

Perjury is essentially a violation of a contract (the contract being the sworn oath), so of course it's a legitimate offense. To me, it comes down to the context in which you make your remarks. If you're under arrest or under oath, then I think lying should be prosecutable (because, in these situations you have the right to remain silent and the right to not incriminate yourself, and you obviously know you're talking to legal officials).

Lying is a pretty common reaction of some people to stressful situations, especially when they have something to hide. If you are testifying at a trial, you will have had time to collect your thoughts and prepare yourself for the situation, but that isn't the case if an FBI agents shows up at your door and starts asking questions. The law needs to allow for people to be human.

Wait, so let's say I'm at the post office buying stamps, and I hand the cashier a $20, and she says, "Don't you have anything smaller?" and I say no, even though I do, because I want the change.

Could I be convicted under this law?

I think the law is only applied when it's in relation to a crime, but it is an interesting thought and shows how an overly broad law could be easily abused.

It is unlikely you would be convicted, but yes, you have violated that law in the circumstance you describe.

If the cashier is a federal agent.

I'm pretty sure all USPS employees are.

I thought USPS is a "private" company, just heavily regulated.

Edit: Never mind. It has a complicate ownership, as a US government-owned corporation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Postal_Service

No, nor have you broken the law as it is written. The key factor here is that the statement must be made about a matter in which a federal investigative or regulatory agency has authority to pursue legal actions, i.e., in relation to an investigation into violations of federal laws or regulations.

What the discussion on HN ignores (and which the article touches upon but glosses over) is that the lie (about hours) is repeated to a federal agent during an investigation or on court. The repetition is the illegal act.

I am a lawyer...and I would really love it if the armchair laywers on HN would stop spreading FUD.

The terrible point in the complete article is that basically, you need first to assume that the authorities will screw you and not help you.

For me, the "todos in this case" are just a cure for a dead man, because if you cannot trust the authorities anymore the basic assumptions of a working judiciary system are broken.

Related: overcriminalization. Looks like this story relates to the same statute:


What's the situation in the UK on this whole Dont Talk to Cops thing? Does anyone know of any equivalent legal advice?

Does this apply to Congresspersons?

Does this apply to federal agents? In other words, if an officer says something false in a statement that is later read by another officer can they be charged?

Does anyone know of a similar quality article for dealing with UK law enforcement?

Just reading this makes me nervous.

I assume that most people who post here are smarter than the average citizen or at least more informed. The real "spaghetti code" problem here is that this obscure statute can easily be violated in advance of being told your rights. And you only get ready your rights a.k.a. mirandized when you're bordering on already in trouble with the law. Coupled with the fact that this is a federal statute it only applies to federal agents not city or state. And since you can lie to city or state officials up until you are under oath (which most people know) you might be inclined to believe he can do it to federal agent until it's too late. Which means their first encounter with a federal agent will be a crash course in the finer points of the law. One which they will unlikely be able to walk away from. I believe the spirit of v. Miranda is being violated the statute, I believe the beginning of any contacts with the law enforcement official should begin with the reading of your rights which should now include information on statute 18 sec 1001.

As interesting as this article may be, it does not belong on HN.

People I know who have run internet startups have had contact with federal agents on various occasions.

EDIT. This response is getting so many upvotes I'm going to clarify it a bit, particularly for people who may be reading this from other countries:

Yes, you can start and run a business in America without ever having direct interaction with the US Federal Government, other than mailing off your taxes. It's not like every business one day gets a visit from the KGB and they tell you to do things a certain way (or else).

Nevertheless, if you are for example an ISP or provide messaging, as you grow big enough it's probably a matter of time before you'll end up getting a subscriber who's being investigated. You may have a former employee that goes on to apply for some sort of special security clearance and they follow up on his background (or you go out of your way to hire a talented hacker with a mysterious background). You may simply meet such agents due to ordinary shared interests, like say at a trade show or a conference. Of course, you could also meet them when they are also actually investigating something with the aim of prosecuting people.

I don't know which of these situations fall under the law described in the article, possibly all of them do.

> if you are for example an ISP or provide messaging, as you grow big enough it's probably a matter of time before you'll end up getting a subscriber who's being investigated

That is not what Hacker News is for. If your company is that big, you should have counsel on retainer, and they should be advising you of the proper behavior in the face of potential federal investigation. Moreover, it's our job as American citizens to be aware of our legal exposure and to know the proper way to proceed. It's a shame that this is not taught in our high school Government courses.

It is not the role of Hacker News to educate us on these issues. There are other sites for that. You can tell by the quality of the comment thread that it's not something that appeals to "our inner hacker." An article is not HN material simply by appealing to some (or even a majority) of the members here; it must satisfy other criteria, and this one does not.

I came here to say the same thing, and I'm sorry that you're being downvoted. This article is not Hacker News material. It's useful information, yes, but that does not automatically mean it's Hacker Newsworthy.

Hacker News is not a funnel for good Reddit submissions. It has a different focus. This article is US-specific, transient, and not intellectually stimulating. It does not belong here, so I flagged it.

I agree that downvotes shouldn't be used to indicate disagreement. The article satisfied my intellectual curiosity about a small aspect of a system that I find fascinating; that is why I submitted it. It's purpose was not to relay legal advice or make a political statement. However now that I see more than a few people think it's not Hacker News-worthy, I'll consider my future submissions more carefully.

No need to apologize for submitting the article. It was certainly interesting, and I can understand why you submitted it. The problem, though, is that there are numerous such articles that we could read and discuss, enough to swamp more scientifically- or technically-relevant submissions. They are easy to digest and weigh in on without adding much.

I'm glad I read the article, so thanks for that. I was just surprised by how hard jsdalton got downvoted when he was right. It indicated to me a mismatch between what HN is "supposed" to be and what the commenters/voters here think it should be.

Why not? The guidelines are basically anything that hackers find interesting. You yourself said it is interesting.

It's "interesting" because it's of general interest to anybody (anybody in the U.S, that is), not because hackers would have a particular reason to find it interesting.

I thought it was off topic:

> Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures. If they'd cover it on TV news, it's probably off-topic.

But that's just my opinion. Apologies for adding to the noise.

I would downvote myself for this comment that I'm making, but:

I generally dislike this sort of meta-discussion on HN. I believe the guidelines have something to say about this, as well: if you disagree with a posting, don't comment about it, just flag it and move on. Adding a comment saying "this doesn't belong on HN" does not at all add to the discussion. That is why I (and many others) will downvote you for your initial comment. It's not because we disagree, it's because the comment is extraneous noise.

This sort of meta-discussion sucks, but when the majority of the people responding to a comment are wrong[0] (as evidenced by jsdalton's numerous downvotes), then the necessity to educate the members outweighs the desire to avoid meta-discussion. The average commenter here has less than two years of membership[1]; many likely are not familiar with what HN is (was?) all about, and some of the longtime ones are likely getting sucked into interesting-but-vacuous discussion.

[0] I consider this to be undebatable. This is exactly the kind of submission pg wanted to avoid when he discouraged politics. See http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=196547

[1] Just to redeem this post, the following code calculated this:

  import re, urllib2
  from BeautifulSoup import BeautifulSoup

  pg = BeautifulSoup(urllib2.urlopen("http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3005365"))
  user_re = re.compile(r'^user\?id=(.*)$')
  users = set(user_link.string for user_link in pg.findAll('a', href=user_re))
  created_days_ago = 0
  # Some error-handling code omitted for conciseness
  for user in users:
      profile = BeautifulSoup(urllib2.urlopen("http://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=" + user))
      created = int(profile.find(text="created:").parent.nextSibling.string.split(None, 1)[0])
      created_ago_days += created
  print created_ago_days / float(len(users)) # printed 624.666666667
(I've been doing a lot of C programming lately. To be able to do such a high-level task in 9 lines of code is ridiculously sexy.)

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