Brazilian authorities on Thursday charged Ryan Lochte with filing a false police report and have summoned the 32-year-old Olympic gold medalist back to Brazil. As explained below, don’t expect Lochte to oblige.
Thursday’s development is the latest setback for Lochte, whose embellishment—or, as Lochte puts it, “over exaggeration”—about a murky incident at a gas station in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood with teammates Jimmy Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz sparked an international controversy. The incident, which involved the swimmers turning over money for damage they allegedly caused to a bathroom, has embarrassed the swimmers and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Lochte doesn’t have to return to Brazil
As I have explained on SI.com, the U.S.-Brazil extradition treaty governs the possibility of Lochte being forced to appear in a Brazilian court to face the charge. This treaty lists a number of criminal acts that call for both countries to cooperate in extraditing persons. These acts tend to be among the most grave, such as murder and rape. Filing a false police report, which is often punished in Brazil through a fine rather than incarceration, is not among them.
Even if the U.S.-Brazil extradition treaty could somehow be construed to contemplate Lochte’s misconduct, the process to extradite him would be long, complicated, and nearly certain to fail. It would first require an extradition petition by Brazil. It would then require approval by the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and, finally, a U.S. federal judge.
Extradition attempts are particularly difficult in matters where the targeted person can plausibly claim political considerations are motivating the country seeking extradition. Here, Lochte’s attorneys would contend that Brazil’s intentions are about making an example of a famous American who embarrassed the Rio police department and Brazil’s Olympic organizers.
Lochte could voluntarily return to Brazil—but it would be risky
Lochte could, on his own, return to Brazil to face the filing a false police report charge. He would then defend himself in court or perhaps reach a plea deal with prosecutors. If he opted to return, it would seemingly be motivated by reputational considerations. Lochte has lost all of his endorsement deals, including with such top brands as Ralph Lauren and Speedo. Although he will join the cast of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, his brand image has been severely tarnished. Put another way, it is hard to conceive of a mainstream company that would want Lochte to endorse its product. Lochte also is the target of potential discipline by the USOC and the International Olympic Committee.
At least in theory, Lochte could return to Brazil and plead his case. There is some evidence that he and his three teammates were, in fact, victims of a shakedown by opportunistic security guards. It stands to reason that Lochte, or at least his teammates, might be viewed with some sympathy if the evidence of what took place was heard in court.
The drawback to such a plan is that Lochte could lose in a Brazilian court and risk being sentenced to a short jail sentence. Making a false statement to the police is not a trivial offense in any country. Such a statement could lead to the wrongful arrest of an innocent person and also needlessly waste the time and resources of law enforcement. Lochte’s tall tale of men posing as Rio police, pulling over his taxi and placing a gun at his head also embarrassed the Rio police as vulnerable to impersonation at a time when the world was watching Rio closer than ever.
So chances are Lochte won’t be returning to Brazil anytime soon if ever.
Michael McCann, SI’s legal analyst, is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.