Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Court Overturns Conviction for False Citizenship Claim
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Lebanese man who checked a box on a standard employment form indicating he was a U.S. “citizen or national” was improperly convicted of falsely claiming American citizenship, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt noted that the statute Ali Abdulatif Karaouni was convicted of violating after a two-day trial in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California—18 U.S.C. Sec. 911—authorizes imprisonment for up to three years for anyone who “falsely and willfully represents himself to be a citizen of the United States,” but says nothing about falsely claiming to be a U.S. national.
Karaouni entered the United States in 1993, overstaying his visa and marrying a U.S. citizen in 1997. In 1998, after beginning the process of seeking American citizenship based on his marriage but before any change in his citizenship status, he applied to work as a patient transporter, catering assistant, or dietary aid at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno.
On the standard Employment Eligibility Verification Form, or I-9, that Karaouni filled out he checked the box next to the statement: “I attest, under penalty of perjury, that I am...[a] citizen or national of the United States.”
After his conviction, Karaouni was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Since he had already spend that much time in jail awaiting trial, he was released and deported.
Noting that the government form was “presumably drafted with care,” Reinhardt pointed out that it says “citizen or national,” not “citizen and national.”
The jurist explained:
“This syntactic distinction is critical because the legal definitions of U.S. national and U.S. citizen are not synonymous. All citizens of the United States are nationals, but some nationals, such as persons born in American Samoa and other U.S. territorial possessions, are not citizens.”
“A plain reading of the statute shows beyond any question that the provision covers only false claims of U.S. citizenship and not false claims of U.S. nationality.”
The judge went on to declare:
“[T]he district court violated a basic principle of criminal law by allowing the government to prove that an individual committed the charged offense by showing that he committed either that offense or some other act. Because Karaouni merely attested on the I-9 Form that he was a U.S. citizen or national, and a claim of U.S. nationality, even if false, does not violate [Sec.] 911, we hold that his answer on the I-9 Form cannot constitute an offense under that statute. Thus, there is insufficient evidence to support the conviction.”
Reinhardt rejected the government’s contention that the jurors could properly have inferred that Karaouni intended, in checking the box, to assert citizenship, not nationality. It would be implausible for Karaouni, who was not born in any U.S. territory or possession, to claim nationality, prosecutors contended.
“The plausibility of Karaouni’s statement is not the issue here, however,” Reinhardt countered. “The legal question is simply whether Karaouni made a statement that violated [Sec.] 911. Only an assertion that he was a citizen of the United States would have done so. An assertion that he was either a citizen of the United States or of Mars would not.”
The judge noted that Karaouni was initially also charged with violating 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1001(a)(2), which criminalizes any false statement in a proceeding before a government agency.
“The government’s decision to dismiss the [Sec.] 1001(a)(2) charge prior to trial may have been a tactical error; nevertheless, our review is limited to the sole count upon which the government chose to proceed,” he observed.
The case is United States v. Karaouni, 03-10327.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company