Defendants Wayne Pierre, Ricardo De Four, Zion Clarke, Kevon Demerieux, Kevin Nixon, Christopher Sealey, and Anderson Straker, nationals of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, throughout the years abducted wealthy individuals, held them captive, and extorted ransoms from their family and friends.
On April 6, 2005, they abducted a Trinidad-native and a United States citizen, Balram Maharaj, who visited his children in Trinidad. The defendants delivered Maharaj to an isolated camp deep within the forest where they tied him to a post and gave him little food and water. Maharaj suffered from severe diabetes, hypertension and tuberculosis. The defendants ignored his pleas for medication and used his worsening health as leverage to demand three million Trinidadian dollars from his family. After six days in captivity, missing the medication, Maharaj slipped into a diabetic coma and died. Defendants dismembered his body, packed the remains in Styrofoam containers and buried them in the woods.
In late 2005, assisted by FBI, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service uncovered evidence of Maharaj’s death. The United States sought the extradition of the defendants and charged them with conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death in violation of The Hostage Taking Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1203. As the United States citizenship is an essential element of a Hostage Taking Act prosecution, defendants argued that Maharaj secured his citizenship through fraud. He had allegedly failed to disclose an assault on his wife in his U.S. immigration applications. The district court denied this argument. The jury convicted defendants of all charges, and the district court sentenced them to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. Defendants appealed.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirms defendants’ convictions and the judgment of the district court.
The issue here is whether The Hostage Taking Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1203, that prescribes criminal penalties for foreign nationals who abduct American citizens, applies if after the crime was committed the victim’s citizenship is found invalid.
The Hostage Taking Act was enacted to fulfill the United States’ obligations under the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. Section 18 U.S.C. § 1203, and makes extraterritorial hostage-taking a criminal offense when the victim is a United States national.
Before the trial defendants uncovered evidence they claimed demonstrated that Maharaj obtained his naturalization through fraud, by misrepresenting facts on his green card application, and later on his naturalization application. The defendants thus argued that because conviction under the Hostage Taking Act requires U.S. citizenship and because Maharaj’s fraud negated his citizenship, the district court lacked jurisdiction.
“The district court disagreed. Citing a long and unbroken line of Supreme Court precedent, see, e.g., United States v. Zucca, 351 U.S. 91, 95 & n.8 (1956); see also Bindczyck v. Finucane, 342 U.S. 76, 83 (1951), the district court held that 8 U.S.C. § 1451, which permits the United States Attorney to institute denaturalization proceedings in a federal district court, is the exclusive procedure for voiding the citizenship of a person naturalized due to fraud. United States v. Clarke, 628 F. Supp. 2d 1, 9 (D.D.C. 2009). Citizenship, the court held, remains valid until a district court, acting upon a United States Attorney’s section 1451 motion, determines that naturalization was ‘procured by concealment of a material fact or fraud.’ Id. at 6 (quoting 8 U.S.C. § 1451(a)). Given that no district court had ever made such a finding as to Maharaj, the court denied the motion. Clarke, 628 F. Supp. 2d at 10.”
“The district court also granted the government’s motion in limine to exclude from trial any evidence regarding Maharaj’s alleged fraud. Id. at 13. Conviction under the Hostage Taking Act, the court held, requires the government to prove that the victim acquired citizenship by birth or naturalization. Id. at 13. Evidence disputing whether the victim should have been naturalized or the circumstances surrounding naturalization is irrelevant. Id. The court therefore rejected defendants’ argument that they had a Sixth Amendment right to present evidence regarding Maharaj’s alleged fraud to the jury. Id. at 14. ‘[T]he jury,’ the district court concluded, ‘may not decide the validity of Maharaj’s citizenship.’ Id. at 13.”
Furthermore, defendants argued that “[a] claim that an element of the offense is unsatisfied—that the victim was not a United States citizen, for example—goes only to a defendant’s guilt or innocence. In other words, jurisdiction hinges not on the merits, but rather on the court’s constitutional or statutory power to adjudicate the case. Lamar v. United States, 240 U.S. 60, 64 (1916) (‘Jurisdiction is a matter of power, and covers wrong as well as right decisions.’). Under 18 U.S.C. § 3231, federal district courts possess statutory authority over ‘all offenses against the laws of the United States.’ Because violation of the Hostage Taking Act is an offense against the laws of the United States, our jurisdictional inquiry ends and we turn to the merits of defendants’ appeal. United States v. Fahnbulleh, 752 F.3d 470, 476 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (‘If an indictment or information alleges the violation of a crime set out in Title 18 or in one of the other statutes defining federal crimes, that is the end of the jurisdictional inquiry.’) (internal quotation marks omitted).”
“[…] [T]he Hostage Taking Act. Section 1203(b)(1)(A) criminalizes hostage-taking that occurs outside the United States if ‘the person seized or detained is a national of the United States.’ A ‘national of the United States’ is, in turn, defined by reference to the Immigration and Nationality Act as ‘a citizen of the United States.’ 18 U.S.C. § 1203(c); 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(22). By its plain language, then, section 1203 broadly protects United States citizens. The statute imposes no restriction on this protection. It does not, for example, exclude citizens who, in retrospect, are unworthy of the honor. Nor does it exclude persons whose citizenship might at some later time be invalidated. In other words, section 1203 protects victims according to their status at the time of the hostage-taking.”
“True, section 1203 is written in the present tense—the statute applies if ‘the person seized or detained is a national of the United States.’ But that clause appears in a criminal statute that requires examination of past events—whether the victim was seized or detained. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011) (use of backward-looking language such as ‘resulted in’ and ‘involved’ in federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), requires examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made). […]Determining whether an American citizen was seized or detained under the Hostage Taking Act requires examination of the victim’s status at the time of the abduction.”
The Court concludes that “Congress has vested sole naturalization authority in the Attorney General, 8 U.S.C. § 1421(a), and a certificate of naturalization represents conclusive evidence of the Attorney General’s determination, Tutun v. United States, 270 U.S. 568, 577 (1926); 8 U.S.C. § 1443(e). […] [W]hether the Attorney General, acting through INS, should have issued a certificate to Maharaj—as opposed to whether the certificate was itself authentic—is irrelevant under the Hostage Taking Act”, and affirms district court’s decision.
Case: U.S. v. Straker, 800 F.3d 570 (D.C. Cir.).