By Sophia Blair

On January 4, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published a criminal case, United States v. Schmidt. Richard Schmidt (“Schmidt”) originally pled guilty to traveling in foreign commerce and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(c). However, claiming ineffective counsel, Schmidt argued that he did not, as a matter of law, travel in interstate commerce and was actually innocent of the § 2423(c) claim. The district court agreed, but the Fourth Circuit reversed.

Did Schmidt continue to travel in foreign commerce for the purposes of § 2423(c)?

Schmidt had a history of convictions for sex offenses involving young boys. In 2002, Schmidt fled the United States to the Philippines to avoid arrest for making unauthorized contact with a minor during his parole. While in the Philippines, Schmidt worked as a school teacher but was arrested again for molesting young boys. In 2003, Schmidt left the Philippines for Cambodia where he was again arrested for sex offenses. After raping a young boy following his release, Schmidt was deported to the United States and faced several charges including the § 2423(c) violation.

Schmidt petitioned the court to vacate his conviction because he claimed that his travel in foreign commerce ended during his time in the Philippines. Furthermore, he argued that his flight to Cambodia did not constitute independent travel in foreign commerce under § 2423(c). The issue before the Fourth Circuit was, at what time did Schmidt’s travel in foreign commerce end? The Fourth Circuit held that, for the purposes of § 2423(c), Schmidt continued to travel in foreign commerce when he left the Philippines for Cambodia. Therefore, he violated § 2423(c).

Interpreting § 2423(c) “Travel in Foreign Commerce”

§ 2423(c) was enacted as part of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act (“PROTECT”) of 2003, and was intended to criminalize illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. In order to answer the question before it, the Fourth Circuit had to interpret what “travel” and “foreign commerce” meant for the purposes of § 2423(c). Looking to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition, the court refused to construe “travel” narrowly to mean “en route from one place to another” and instead adopted the broader concept of “movement abroad.” Therefore, a person is still traveling even if they spend a significant amount of time in one place, as long as “the visit is sufficiently transient and contemplates some future departure.” United States v. Jackson, 480 F.3d 1014, 1022 (9th Cir. 2007). Therefore, travel continues until a person returns to their place of origin or permanently resettles elsewhere.

The Fourth Circuit construed “foreign commerce” parallel to the Foreign Commerce Clause to mean “commerce with a foreign country.” Foreign commerce requires a nexus with the United States. As a result, the Fourth Circuit held that “travel in foreign commerce” encompasses movement abroad that maintains some nexus with the United States, though there is no clear standard for what satisfies the nexus requirement.

Schmidt argued that his travel in foreign commerce ended during his stay in the Philippines because he was there for 18 months, obtained a work permit and had a full-time job as a teacher. Additionally, he rented a home and had a local driver’s license. The Fourth Circuit disagreed because his status remained transient, despite Schmidt’s insistence that he never intended to return to the United States. He was using two-month tourist visas, had an “alien employment permit,” maintained assets in the United States, and never purchased any property abroad. He travelled with a U.S. passport and did not make an effort to obtain permanent status in the Philippines or Cambodia. Therefore, Schmidt was traveling in foreign commerce at the time he committed the sexual offenses in Cambodia.

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for reinstatement of the judgment of conviction on the § 2423(c) offense.

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