Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Noel: Upholding Convictions for Extraterritorial Hostage Taking of an American Citizen

In United States v. Noel, No. 17-10529 (June 26, 2018) (Anderson, Marcus, Hull), the Court upheld convictions for hostage taking of an American citizen by a Haitian national in Haiti.

First, the Court held that the government was not required to prove that the defendant knew that the victim was an American citizen.  The Court reasoned that the victim's citizenship status was purely jurisdictional, and no mens rea is necessary for jurisdictional facts where the statute is otherwise silent.

Second, the Court rejected the defendant's argument that the statute was limited to crimes of terrorism.  The Court concluded that the plain language of the statute encompassed the defendant's conduct because he seized, detained, threatened to kill, and demanded ransom for the release of the hostage, who was an American citizen.  While the statute was focused primarily on terrorism and crimes involving governmental organizations, the plain language encompassed kidnapping and ransom demands with regard to private parties.  The Court joined every other circuit to address that issue.

Third, and finally, the Court rejected the defendant's argument that the extraterritorial application of the statute to his case violated due process.  Congress expressly provided that the statute would apply extraterritorially where the hostage is an American.  The Court rejected the defendant's argument that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to criminalize non-terrorism conduct committed by a Haitian national entirely in Haiti.  The Court's precedent had previously held that, regardless of whether the statute could be justified by the offenses clause (incorporating the law of nations) or the commerce clause, it implemented an international treaty and was therefore justified by the necessary and proper clause.  Finally, the Court concluded that application of the statute in this case was not arbitrary or fundamentally unfair, because the treaty, signed both by the U.S. and Haiti, provided global notice that such conduct could be prosecuted in a U.S. court.  And, even assuming that something more than the treaty was required, the victim's U.S. citizenship reflected a significant national interest of the U.S. in protecting Americans abroad.