Article United States: Federal Appellate Court Affirms US Citizen's Conviction for Child Sex Abuse Crimes Committed Overseas

On May 5, 2022, a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a federal statute criminalizing noncommercial child sex abuse committed by Americans while traveling overseas is constitutional. (United States v. Rife, No. 20-5688 (6th Cir. 2022).)

Case History

United States citizen Micky Rife traveled to Cambodia in 2012, where he obtained a job teaching English to Cambodian children. While working as an educator, allegations that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with students were reported from 2013 to 2018, when the school terminated his employment. The misconduct alleged in this case did not involve payment between Rife and the children, or the children’s parents, in exchange for the sexual abuse. Rather, two witnesses stated that Rife touched them inappropriately underneath their clothing while appearing to play with or carry them. According to the Federal District Court’s ruling (at 1–2) in his case, Rife was arrested after returning to the United States in late 2018 and subsequently indicted by a grand jury on “two counts … of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(c).”

While his case was before the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Rife moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the particular subsection of the statute under which he was charged was an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’ authority. The District Court denied Rife’s motion to dismiss, after which he entered a conditional plea of guilty to one count and appealed the District Court’s ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child

In addition to federal criminal statutes, this case involves the human rights treaty Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, commonly referred to as the “Optional Protocol.” This treaty requires signing nations to prohibit certain acts of child exploitation, including human trafficking of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. (Optional Protocol art. 1.) The Optional Protocol also urges signatories to take measures to establish jurisdiction over offenses committed in violation of the treaty when the perpetrator “is a national of that State or a person who has his habitual residence in its territory.” (Art. 4(2).) This treaty’s reach is limited to commercial acts of sexual abuse and exploitation.

The Optional Protocol was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000. Later that year, President Clinton signed the Optional Protocol, and it was approved by the Senate in 2002, a few months after it entered into force, and was then ratified by the president. Cambodia also became a signatory to the treaty, which it ratified in 2002.

The PROTECT Act

Shortly after ratifying the Optional Protocol, Congress enacted the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act. The PROTECT Act applies to U.S. citizens and residents, and criminalizes engaging in “illicit sexual conduct” in foreign nations. (18 U.S.C. § 2423(c).) The statute defines “illicit sexual conduct” as both commercial sex acts with a minor and “a sexual act … with a person under 18 years of age[.]” (18 U.S.C. § 2423(f)(1).) In other words, while the Optional Protocol’s articles are limited to prohibitions on commercial sexual abuse of minors, the PROTECT Act makes it a crime for U.S. citizens and residents to engage in both commercial and noncommercial illicit sex acts with minors outside the United States.

Sixth Circuit Opinion

Before the Court of Appeals, Rife again argued that Congress did not have the authority to criminalize noncommercial sexual abuse of minors in jurisdictions outside the United States. In response, the government argued that that statute in question was a valid exercise of Congress’ powers under the U.S. Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, Treaties Clause, and Foreign Commerce Clause.

The Sixth Circuit ultimately upheld Rife’s conviction on the basis of the Supreme Court case Missouri v. Holland. Holland stands for the proposition that Congress may enact a statute to implement treaty provisions. “If the treaty is valid there can be no dispute about the validity of the statute … as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government.” (Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416, 432 (1920).) Finding that the Optional Protocol is a valid treaty and that the PROTECT Act was enacted to implement that treaty’s provisions, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court.

The Sixth Circuit’s holding included one concurrence, which agreed with the case’s outcome, but provided a different analysis from that of the majority. Thus far, the parties have filed no pleadings indicating whether they intend to appeal the Sixth Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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United States: Federal Appellate Court Affirms US Citizen's Conviction for Child Sex Abuse Crimes Committed Overseas
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Chicago citation style:

United States: Federal Appellate Court Affirms US Citizen's Conviction for Child Sex Abuse Crimes Committed Overseas. 2022. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2022-05-24/united-states-federal-appellate-court-affirms-us-citizens-conviction-for-child-sex-abuse-crimes-committed-overseas/.

APA citation style:

(2022) United States: Federal Appellate Court Affirms US Citizen's Conviction for Child Sex Abuse Crimes Committed Overseas. [Web Page] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2022-05-24/united-states-federal-appellate-court-affirms-us-citizens-conviction-for-child-sex-abuse-crimes-committed-overseas/.

MLA citation style:

United States: Federal Appellate Court Affirms US Citizen's Conviction for Child Sex Abuse Crimes Committed Overseas. 2022. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2022-05-24/united-states-federal-appellate-court-affirms-us-citizens-conviction-for-child-sex-abuse-crimes-committed-overseas/>.

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