Thursday, December 28, 2006
Ninth Circuit Rules American Samoa Sweatshop Owner Was Properly Tried in U.S. District Court in Hawaii
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A sweatshop owner was properly tried and convicted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii for federal crimes committed in American Samoa, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel affirmed the convictions and sentence of defendant Kil Soo Lee, who was found guilty in U.S. District Court of crimes including extortion, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of others, and holding 17 workers to a condition of involuntary servitude—all in connection with the garment factory he owned and operated in American Samoa.
Lee was arrested by the U.S. government in American Samoa in March 2001 after his mistreatment of factory workers came to light.
The sweatshop owner had recruited laborers from Vietnam, China and American Samoa and placed them on the factory compound where he controlled when they could eat, be paid, and leave the premises.
He initially subjugated the workers by imprisoning them, starving them and threatening them with deportation, witnesses testified. When the American Samoa authorities sought to investigate these events, whose effects were witnessed by individuals outside the compound, Lee threatened to deport any worker who cooperated with the authorities.
The mistreatment worsened when factory supervisors and guards began to physically abuse workers who disobeyed orders.
According to testimony, when pressed with a large contract and a difficult deadline on Nov. 28, 1999, Lee ordered a supervisor to beat disobedient workers, triggering abuse that escalated into a bloody attack. Guards brutally beat nearly 20 Vietnamese seamstresses with plastic plumbing pipes, causing one worker to lose her eye.
Upon arresting Lee, the federal authorities transported him 2,300 miles to Hawaii, the site of the federal court nearest to the unincorporated U.S. territory of American Samoa.
At trial, he moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the U.S. District Court lacked jurisdiction to try him and the District of Hawaii was an improper venue. Jurisdiction for his case properly lay in the High Court of American Samoa, and the geographical region of American Samoa was the correct venue, he asserted.
U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway dismissed Lee’s motion, ruling that American Samoa was not a judicial “district” authorized by statute or other congressional action to exercise jurisdiction over federal crimes. Such matters fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court, she held, adding that venue was proper in the District of Hawaii because that was where Lee had been taken after his arrest.
The ruling was followed by a four-month-long trial in which Lee was convicted on 14 out of the 22 counts on which a federal grand jury indicted him.
On appeal, the panel agreed with Mollway that American Samoa simply failed to qualify as a “district” in which the case could be tried.
Writing for the court, Senior Judge Stephen S. Trott explained:
“If Congress wanted to establish a court in American Samoa with the power to try individuals for crimes committed under federal law, it would have either (1) created a federal district court in American Samoa, or (2) explicitly directed an existing American Samoa court to assert jurisdiction over a particular criminal matter.”
Congress has authorized the High Court of American Samoa to try certain federal criminal matters, but the offenses with which Lee was charged are not among them, the jurist explained.
Under U.S. Code Sec. 3238, he continued, venue for the trial of matters committed out of a district’s jurisdiction lies in the district in which the offender is arrested or first brought. Since after his arrest, Lee was “first brought” to Hawaii, venue was proper in the District of Hawaii, he concluded.
Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and William A. Fletcher concurred in the opinion.
The case is United States v. Lee, 05-10478.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company