D.C. Circuit affirms Trinidadian kidnappers' convictions

United States v. Straker, No. 11-3054 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 1, 2015).

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad (credit: amanderson2 / flickr)

Caroni Swamp, Trinidad (credit: amanderson2 / flickr)

A group of Trinidadians conspired to kidnap Balram Maharaj, a wealthy Trinidad native who lived in the United States but regularly visited his children in Trinidad. The kidnappers forced Maharaj into a car and spirited him away to the forest, where he was tied to a post and given little food or water. Maharaj, a diabetic, eventually went into a coma and died. The kidnappers tried to conceal their crime by dismembering Maharaj’s body with a machete and hiding his remains in buried Styrofoam containers. 

Thankfully, the police ultimately uncovered evidence of Maharaj’s death. The kidnappers were extradited to the United States, where they were charged under the Hostage Taking Act, which makes it a crime for foreigners to kidnap U.S. citizens, even if the kidnapping occurs outside the United States. After a lengthy trial, the kidnappers were convicted.

The D.C. Circuit now rejects a number of different challenges to the convictions. The most substantial of these challenges focuses on Maharaj’s U.S. citizenship—or, as the defendant kidnappers would have it, Maharaj’s lack of U.S. citizenship.

Because Maharaj’s kidnapping happened outside the United States, the Hostage Taking Act makes the kidnapping a crime only if Maharaj was a U.S. citizen. And it turns out that Maharaj had obtained his U.S. citizenship through fraud. The defendants argue that Maharaj’s fraudulent citizenship excludes him from the Hostage Taking Act’s protections. 

The district court, however, forbade the defendants from entering any evidence of Maharaj’s fraud. And the D.C. Circuit says that the district court was right. The Hostage Taking Act focuses on the status of the abductee at the time of the abduction, not on whether that status should never have been conferred or could have been revoked. 

The defendants tried to get around Maharaj’s citizenship by filing a writ of mandamus that would have required the U.S. Attorney to posthumously strip Maharaj of his citizenship. The statute authorizing this action provides that denaturalization on account of fraud is “effective as of the original date” of naturalization—i.e., it “relates back” to the original date on which citizenship was conferred. So this denaturalization statute seems to give the defendants what they need to avoid conviction.

But the D.C. Circuit, relying on Costello v. INS, a 1964 Supreme Court case, refuses to go along with the defendants. In Costello, the Court refused to deport a denaturalized person for crimes committed before denaturalization. The Court concluded that the legal fiction of “relation back” was meant merely to void the citizenship of children who had acquired their citizenship derivatively, through a parent who had acquired his citizenship fraudulently. The D.C. Circuit interprets Costello to prohibit the “relation back” doctrine from extending into criminal law, frankly confessing that applying the doctrine to this case “would weaken the purpose of the Hostage Taking Act.” 

Maharaj was a citizen when the defendants kidnapped him, and the defendants are powerless to retroactively strip him of that status. Their convictions are affirmed.