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The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed the federal murder conviction of a Kaplan Law Firm client. The murder occurred in Mexico and the decision sets an important precedent about the applicability of U.S. law outside the United States.

The case arose from the 2011 killing of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico during an attempted carjacking gone wrong. Although the group that attempted the carjacking did not realize that it had targeted a vehicle operated by U.S. government employees, a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1114, criminalizes the killing of government employees carrying out their duties, regardless of whether the assailant knows that the victim is connected to the government. Instead of being prosecuted in Mexico, several of the assailants, including The Kaplan Law Firm client Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, were extradited to the United States.

The issue on appeal was whether 18 U.S.C. § 1114 applies outside the United States. Under a line of cases decided over the last ten years, beginning with Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), the Supreme Court has held that, as a general rule, federal statutes do not apply overseas unless Congress clearly indicates that the statute so applies. Garcia Sota argued that there was no clear indication that § 1114 applied extraterritorially and, consequently, it did not so apply.

But Morrison and subsequent cases have largely been confined to civil litigation. And the principal practical effect of these cases has been to shield large corporations who operate in the U.S. from civil liability in U.S. courts for misconduct, including fraud and human rights violations, that occurs partially overseas. Two other federal Courts of Appeals (and several lower courts) had previously held that, contrary to today’s ruling, § 1114 does apply outside the United States. The D.C. Circuit, which is often considered to be the second most important court in the country, is the first court to agree that Morrison‘s reasoning applies to § 1114.

Today’s important decision reaffirms the principle that the law should be applied equally to both penniless individuals such as Mr. Garcia Sota and to large multinational corporations. In its unanimous opinion reversing the § 1114 conviction, the D.C. Circuit agreed with Garcia Sota’s argument that, because there was no clear indication that Congress intended this statute to apply outside the United States, it did not apply in Mexico.

Importantly, the Court’s decision does not limit the government’s ability to charge terrorists who target U.S.-connected persons overseas. Several separate statutes that, by their terms, apply overseas, criminalize such conduct. But none of these statutes applied in this case because this was not a terrorist attack, but, essentially, a street crime gone wrong.

Several other serious felony convictions against Garcia Sota are not affected by today’s decision.

Matthew B. Kaplan drafted Mr. Garcia Sota’s brief and argued his case before the Court. The Court had appointed him to represent Mr. Garcia Sota. The Case is United States v. Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota.