U.S. v. Belfast: Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Holds That § 924(c) May Apply to Crimes of Violence Committed Outside United States Territory

Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which makes it a federal crime to use or possess a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, can apply to crimes of violence committed outside the United States. In U.S. v. Belfast, the first case prosecuting an individual under 18 U.S.C. § 2340A (the Torture Act,) the Court upheld a § 924(c) conviction where the American citizen defendant tortured people in Liberia.

The defendant, a man of many names whom the court referred to as Emmanuel, is the American born-and-raised son of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. President Taylor put Emmanuel in charge of the “Anti-Terrorism Unit,” which was known in Liberia as the “Demon Forces.” In that role, Emmanuel tortured many individuals between 1999 and 2002. Twelve pages of the Court’s 87-page opinion recount horrifying details of that torture.

The Court justified the application of § 924(c) to crimes of violence committed extraterritorially by arguing that the plain language of § 924(c) provides for its application to any crimes that “may be prosecuted in a court of the United States.” Because the Torture Act, which applies extraterritorially, may be prosecuted in federal courts, the Court reasoned, “a § 924(c) charge can arise out of extraterritorial conduct that is found to be in violation of the Torture Act.”

In so holding, the Court glossed over the general presumption that statutes apply only domestically, with extraterritorial effect only where congressional intent is clear. Without citing any case law approving the application of § 924(c) to conduct outside the Unites States, the Court distinguished U.S. v. Small, a Supreme Court case holding that the word “any” in a different federal criminal statute could not overcome that Congress normally legislates with only domestic concerns in mind.

We believe this case would be a good candidate for the Supreme Court to grant certiorari if Emmanuel appeals this decision. If that happens, we will provide an update on the case.

The full opinion in U.S. v. Belfast is available here.