63

There's an infamous phrase in Russian (attributed to Stalin's Chief Prosecutor Vyshinsky):

"Был бы человек, а статья найдется"

Translated literally, this means

"if there was a man, an article {{meaning "a law to convict him under"}} will be found"

Is there an idiom in English that reflects the same meaning? (e.g., "we, as the judicial power, can find an appropriate legal excuse to convict anyone and everyone")

  • 10
    “It is easy to find a stick to beat a dog” does not specifically refer to the judiciary, but otherwise conveys the same meaning. – Emil Jeřábek Mar 27 '15 at 17:24
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    Not an idiom, but the famous quote from Cardinal Richelieu might be used to express that sentiment: "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." – blahdiblah Mar 27 '15 at 18:28
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    A more idiomatic version of your translation would be a good English phrase: "For every man, there's a law to convict him under". It's clear, and it's fresh; the only real improvement would be seeing if a non-gender-specific version could be constructed while not being barbarous. Why would you want to use an existing cliche when the translated phrase is so nice? – Glen_b Mar 28 '15 at 1:47
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    The term "Kangaroo court" is somewhat related. – Pharap Mar 28 '15 at 6:23
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    @HotLicks: Unfortunately, regulatory agencies often craft rules which are afforded as much authority as legislated statutes, but which aren't bound by the same restrictions as the legislature. There have been a number of cases in which a regulatory agency has stated that something is legal to manufacture, and then reversed that ruling to not only forbid future manufacture but also to declare that existing items were contraband and must be destroyed without compensation. – supercat Mar 29 '15 at 21:13
73

A good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.

The original phrase, attributed to New York judge Sol Wachtler, from 1985, went something like this:

“[If a district attorney wanted, a grand jury would] indict a ham sandwich.”

It was immortalized in the Tom Wolfe novel "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987).

The phrase succinctly summarizes the state of legal affairs where a prosecutor can find some law written somewhere that even the most well-behaved citizen has broken.


Update

For those who think that being indicted is less severe than being convicted, you may want to become familiar with the process and its consequences, as described in Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime (Glen Reynolds, Columbian Law Review, July 8, 2013) on how prosecutors might pick the laws they choose to indict under in order to obtain likely conviction. In the end, this can make indictment vs. conviction a distinction without a difference. This is exactly what the OP is describing.

Taking the quote from the article:

It would then be up to the junior prosecutors to figure out a plausible crime for which to indict him or her. The crimes were not usually rape, murder, or other crimes you’d see on Law & Order but rather the incredibly broad yet obscure crimes that populate the U.S. Code like a kind of jurisprudential minefield: Crimes like “false statements” (a felony, up to five years), “obstructing the mails” (five years), or “false pretenses on the high seas” (also five years). The trick and the skill lay in finding the more obscure offenses that fit the character of the celebrity and carried the toughest sentences. The, result, however, was inevitable: “prison time.”

So, if the prosecutor wanted to convict someone, then some obscure crime with a severe penalty would be found that would apply.

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    Perhaps note that this poor ham sandwich is the subject of many ridiculous ongoings. In other words, it is the way that the sentence uses this colloquial lunch staple that makes this a phrase that most English speakers would understand as meaning "The law/courts can convict anyone of anything." – fredsbend Mar 27 '15 at 18:41
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    Keep in mind that an indictment is not the same as a conviction, an indictment just means there is sufficient evidence for an actual trial to proceed. The trial will establish guilt or innocence. So there is a subtle nuance to this phrase that may not be apparent to people unfamiliar with the purpose of a grand jury. – Necreaux Mar 27 '15 at 19:17
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    @Necreaux Or possibly just a subtle nuance that highlights a difference between the Russian and the US judicial system. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 '15 at 21:30
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    Yeah, I think this really doesn't have the same meaning. – Casey Mar 28 '15 at 0:49
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    I'm not sure this is what the phrase means. When I've seen it used, it's not saying "there's always some law that you can find someone guilty of," it's saying "grand juries will do whatever a prosecutor wants them to" (instead of making independent decisions, they'll indict anyone for anything if the prosecutor wants them to do that). I read the question as saying that there's some charge you can hang on anyone; this phrase says you can get a grand jury to hang any charge on anyone. – cpast Mar 30 '15 at 0:10
31

The one that springs to mind immediately is:

If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.1

It is translated from French, allegedly by Cardinal Richelieu, and I have seen it used in English to indicate how easy it is for authorities to secure a conviction on vague charges.

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    Thank you for mentioning this. The indicting a ham sandwich example is known, but sounds American, to British ears. This is the example which I've heard most commonly in Britain. – Dan Sheppard Mar 29 '15 at 11:48
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    Warren Buffett: "If a cop follows you for 500 miles (800 kilometers), you’re going to get a ticket,” – Dave Kanter Mar 31 '15 at 17:38
30

How about "Any excuse will serve a tyrant"

Added at the end of (one of the variants of) "The Wolf and the Lamb", as the moral of the story. Written by Aesop (620-550 BCE) this is a well-known fable where a victim (the lamb) is falsely accused and killed (by the wolf) despite a reasonable defence.

from Wikipedia

  • Down the centuries the various interpreters of the fable have applied it to the injustices of their time. In the extended treatment by the 15th century Scottish poet Robert Henryson in his Moral Fables a picture of widespread social breakdown is depicted. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered with perversions of all these by the Wolf.
22

Guilty until proven innocent is a newish twist on an old adage.

It's the title of a 2010 film, it appears quite commonly on the internet (almost half a million Google hits), and Boris Johnson has called for a switch in the terrorist laws to a position that the Guardian labels using this expression [Guardian].

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    Actually, the phrase "guilty until proven innocent" has been around for decades, at least. NGram finds at least two dozen credible uses prior to 1955, at which time the frequency of use increases sharply (and virtually monotonically). – Hot Licks Mar 28 '15 at 17:30
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    ...Worrying ... – Edwin Ashworth Mar 28 '15 at 17:36
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    In some countries, the legal system revolves around the central idea that the defendant is "Guilty until proven innocent." This means that all of those accused of crimes are seen to be guilty, and the defendant (the accused and his lawyer) have to prove to the jury otherwise. The Prosecution will try to keep their stance that the defendant is guilty. Other western countries (i.e. America, Australia, U.K.) assume the opposite. The defendant is assumed innocent, and the law has to prove to the jury that he is guilty. – Ahkam Nihardeen Mar 28 '15 at 23:01
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    I don't think this answer is quite fitting; the question refers specifically to the fact that for everyone, a legal reason can be found to consider them guilty. "Guilty until proven innocent." is decidedly different in that it specifically expresses that no reason is required to consider someone guilty. It does not make any statement on whether such a reason can or cannot be found, as the reason is irrelevant - what is required is a reason to consider someone innocent, and "guilty until proven innocent" does not make any statement on whether or not such a reason exists, either. – O. R. Mapper Mar 30 '15 at 8:55
  • @O.R.Mapper The usual [strong] connotation of the expression in Western states is that we are being at least threatened with a police state. Metaphorical broadening. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 30 '15 at 9:43
21

Not sure how common it is, but I've heard "Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime" quite a few times.

15

Not exactly an idiom, but a reasonably common phrase:

Everyone's guilty of something.

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    This is similar, but I get the feeling it approaches the situation from the opposite aspect: the Russian saying (if I’m understanding it correctly) is a commentary on the law, not on the person. Even if someone leads a super-clean life, you can always find some statute or other that you can use to convict them under—you just have to dig hard and deep enough (in law texts, not into the actions of the person). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 '15 at 15:56
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    To turn it around and comment on the law, use it sarcastically: "Everyone's 'guilty' of something." – Dan Getz Mar 27 '15 at 20:17
6

Historically, most Anglophones probably haven't lived under despotic regimes characterized by autocratic misuse of the legal process, so it may be a cultural thing that we have no direct equivalent to OP's Russian "saying". But in similar contexts we (and indeed, power-abusing authorities) are quite likely to come up with...

trumped-up charges (trump from French tromper = "to deceive")

  • 1
    This seems somewhat related, but IMHO addresses more an individual case, rather than the aggregate state of society implied in the initial idiom. – DVK Mar 27 '15 at 16:53
  • So this question isn't too broad? "So all possible answers here would be suggestions, with no meaningful way to identify a single unambiguously "correct" answer that we can all upvote." - FumbleFingers. Double-standards, yuck. – Mike Mar 30 '15 at 0:47
  • In the narrow sense, your historical remark is true, though one could argue that the relative proliferation of civil suing for everything and anything in many Western countries - including anglophone places - could very well lead to similar sayings. (I'm not claiming we face a lawsuit a day in these countries, just that there is an ever-growing number of somewhat absurd, yet successful, lawsuits that might well prompt a saying like the one described by the OP.) – O. R. Mapper Mar 30 '15 at 9:02
  • @Mike: Surely you can see that most of the answers here are "idiomatic" and/or relatively commonly used expressions relevant to the requested context. But your question doesn't currently have any answers like that (because, I believe, there are none). You could argue that in neither case does the OP know in advance whether there is a relevant "idiomatic standard", but I think just looking at how the questions are framed suggests different perspectives/expectations anyway. – FumbleFingers Mar 30 '15 at 12:26
1

Have you heard of "creative accounting"? Based on that, we could coin a phrase, "creative policing," or "creative indicting."

Throw the book at someone means to apply all imaginable laws to get someone into as much trouble as possible. Not exactly the same as your phrase, but related.

Corruption?

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