I See Right Through You: The Logic and Consequences of Spurious Criminal Charges

(with Yuna Blajer)

In this paper, we analyze the logic and consequences of raising blatantly spurious judicial charges. First, we situate false charges as a specific type of strategic manipulation of the judiciary, distinct from allocating resources and dictating priorities of investigation (often observed in democracies) and different from prosecuting an opponent for political benefit by bringing up charges that are credible or real (often observed in authoritarian regimes). We argue that false charges provide political benefits that go well beyond the direct elimination of political competition and popularity boosts. Importantly, false charges allow the incumbent to decide when and why to drop the charges or release the accused, thus granting him control of the political spectrum without compromising popularity. Second, we find that the constant reliance on false charges during an authoritarian era can lead to a dysfunctional judiciary after a transition to democracy, where false charges are constantly raised even in the absence of a strategic reason to do so. In a theory-building exercise, we present two case studies of persons who were jailed under charges that were patently false in Mexico under authoritarianism and democracy.