District Court Rejects Statutory and Constitutional Challenge to Obstruction of Justice Prosecution Arising Out of Alleged Murder in Colombia

The World in U.S. Courts: Winter 2015 - White Collar Criminal

United States v. Bocachica and United States v. Sepulveda, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, November 6, 2014

These companion cases arose out of the alleged murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who was also an Assistant Attaché at the United States Embassy in Colombia, in a taxi cab in Bogota. Defendant Bocachica was alleged to have destroyed evidence of the crime, and was charged with obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. 1512(c). Defendant Sepulveda was separately prosecuted for violations involving murder and kidnapping of U.S. diplomatic personnel. As relevant here, both defendants argued that the statutes under which they were being prosecuted could not constitutionally be applied to them because their actions had insufficient contacts with the U.S.

The District Court first rejected the defendants’ argument that the criminal statutes at issue should not be interpreted to apply to conduct outside the U.S. The Court recognized the presumption against extraterritorial application of U.S. criminal laws, but concluded that the presumption had been overcome by a statutory provision that expressly authorized application of those laws to conduct in other countries.

The Court then rejected a constitutional challenge to the charges, citing the requirement that there must be enough of a “nexus” between the defendant and the U.S. that the prosecution would not be “arbitrary or fundamentally unfair.” To determine whether the necessary connection existed, the Court employed a test that asked whether the defendants’ conduct implicated “important American interests.” In this case, the U.S. interest in the security of its citizens abroad, especially ones serving in diplomatic capacities, was found applicable and substantial. The Court also noted the U.S. interest in fighting the illegal trafficking of drugs into the U.S. The Court further found that it was not relevant that the defendants may not have known, at the time of the incident, that the victim was an American citizen working in the U.S. diplomatic corps.

A second constitutional requirement identified by the Court is that the defendant have reason to anticipate that he would be prosecuted for his conduct somewhere—not necessarily in the U.S. In Bocacchica’s case, the Court found that this test was met by allegations that the defendant had removed evidence of the crime from the taxi, knew (as a matter of local reporting after the incident) that the victim was a U.S. agent, and that local police had sought to recover the vehicle. Finally, the Court noted that obstruction of justice was an extraditable offense under the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Colombia, further providing notice to Bocachica that he might be prosecuted for his alleged conduct. In Sepulveda’s case, the Court similarly found that the alleged crimes—of murder and kidnapping implicated “important American interests” and gave the defendant reason to think he would be prosecuted somewhere.

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