SCOTUS: Causation Required for Conviction Authorizing Denaturalization

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 25, 2017

On Thursday, June 22, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Maslenjak v. United States.

The case involved Divna Maslenjak, who was convicted by a jury for having knowingly "procur[ed] contrary to law, [her] naturalization" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a), and denaturalized by a federal District Court judge under section 340(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA); she was deported to Serbia last year.

Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia during the civil war between Serbs and Muslims in the 1990s. In 1998, the Court stated, Maslenjak, her two children, and her husband Ratko Maslenjak applied for refugee status in the United States. Under oath, Maslenjak told an American official that she and her family had a fear of being persecuted in Bosnia from both the Serbs and Muslim Bosnians. In particular, she asserted, the Muslims would mistreat them because of their ethnicity, while the Serbs would be motivated to harm them, according to the Court, "because her husband had evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army by absconding to Serbia — where he remained hidden, apart from the family, for some five years."

The Maslenjaks were granted refugee status and the family immigrated to the United States in 2000. Six years later, Ms. Maslenjak applied for naturalization. As the Court stated:

Question 23 on the application form asked whether she had ever given "false or misleading information" to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit; question 24 similarly asked whether she had ever "lied to a[] government official to gain entry or admission into the United States." Maslenjak answered "no" to both questions, while swearing under oath that her replies were true. She also swore that all her written answers were true during a subsequent interview with an immigration official. In August 2007, Maslenjak was naturalized as a U. S. citizen.

The problem was, as the Court found:

Maslenjak's professions of honesty were false: In fact, she had made up much of the story she told to immigration officials when seeking refuge in this country. Her fiction began to unravel at around the same time she applied for citizenship. In 2006, immigration officials confronted Maslenjak's husband Ratko with records showing that he had not fled conscription during the Bosnian civil war; rather, he had served as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army. And not only that: He had served in a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre — a slaughter of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians. Within a year, the Government convicted Ratko on charges of making false statements on immigration documents. The newly naturalized Maslenjak attempted to prevent Ratko's deportation. During proceedings on that matter, Maslenjak admitted she had known all along that Ratko spent the war years not secreted in Serbia but fighting in Bosnia.

As noted, Maslenjak was charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a), which states, in pertinent part:

Whoever knowingly procures or attempts to procure, contrary to law, the naturalization of any person, or documentary or other evidence of naturalization or of citizenship . . . Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 25 years (if the offense was committed to facilitate an act of international terrorism, 20 years (if the offense was committed to facilitate a drug trafficking crime), 10 years (in the case of the first or second such offense, if the offense was not committed to facilitate such an act of international terrorism or a drug trafficking crime), or 15 years (in the case of any other offense), or both.

"According to the Government's theory," the court stated:

Maslenjak violated §1425(a) because, in the course of procuring her naturalization, she broke another law: 18 U. S. C. §1015(a), which prohibits knowingly making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. The false statements the Government invoked were Maslenjak's answers to questions 23 and 24 on the citizenship application (stating that she had not lied in seeking refugee status) and her corresponding statements in the citizenship interview.

The issue for the Court was that "the District Court [accepting the government's arguments] told the jury that it could convict based on any false statement in the naturalization process (i.e., any violation of §1015(a)), no matter how inconsequential to the ultimate decision."

The Court held that this was in error. Instead, it found the government had to prove causation between the illegal act (here, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a), for a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding) and the ultimate grant of naturalization in order to secure a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a). The Court proposed two tests for applying this holding: First, "[t]he jury could have convicted if that earlier dishonesty (i.e., the thing she misrepresented when seeking citizenship) were itself a reason to deny naturalization." Second, the Court concluded:

[T]he jury could have convicted if (1) knowledge of that prior dishonesty would have led a reasonable official to make some further investigation (say, into the circumstances of her admission), (2) that inquiry would predictably have yielded a legal basis for rejecting her citizenship application, and (3) Maslenjak failed to show that (notwithstanding such an objective likelihood) she was in fact qualified to become a U. S. citizen.

The Court vacated the judgment of the circuit court and remanded the matter for further proceedings.