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The People’s Hired Guns? Experimentally Testing the Inclination of Prosecutors to Abuse the Vague Definition of Crimes


  • Christoph Engel

    () (Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn)

  • Alicja Pluta


Legal realists expect prosecutors to be selfish. If they get the defendant convicted, this helps them advance their careers. If the odds of winning on the main charge are low, prosecutors have a second option. They can exploit the ambiguity of legal doctrine and charge the defendant for vaguely defined crimes, like “conspiracy”. We model the situation as a signalling game and test it experimentally. If we have participants play the naked game, at least a minority plays the game theoretic equilibrium and use the vague rule if a signal indicates that the defendant is guilty. This becomes even slightly more frequent if a misbehaving defendant imposes harm on a third participant. By contrast if we frame the situation as a court case, almost all prosecutors take the signal at face value and knowingly run the risk of loosing in court if the signal was false. Our experimental prosecutors behave like textbook legal idealists, and follow the urge of duty.

Suggested Citation

  • Christoph Engel & Alicja Pluta, 2011. "The People’s Hired Guns? Experimentally Testing the Inclination of Prosecutors to Abuse the Vague Definition of Crimes," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2011_14, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
  • Handle: RePEc:mpg:wpaper:2011_14

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Roy Radner, 1986. "Repeated Partnership Games with Imperfect Monitoring and No Discounting," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 53(1), pages 43-57.
    2. Eric Rasmusen, 1987. "Moral Hazard in Risk-Averse Teams," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 18(3), pages 428-435, Autumn.
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    More about this item


    Risk aversion; prosecution; doctrinal ambiguity; vaguely defined crimes; duty; DOSPERT;

    JEL classification:

    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • C72 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory - - - Noncooperative Games
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law
    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law

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