ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Whether it’s Somali pirates, alleged Kiwi copyright pirates or Colombian narcotraffickers, the long arm of U.S. law often runs through the Eastern District of Virginia.
In the past four years, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride has pursued prosecutions with international connections with increasing regularity.
Some of the cases have no obvious connection to his territory, which includes most of northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads. But the region provides some unique opportunities for a prosecutor to claim venue, in large part because the backbone of the Internet runs through northern Virginia.
The servers that host the electronic EDGAR filings of the Securities and Exchange Commission are based in Alexandria, for instance, giving Eastern District prosecutors jurisdiction over most any kind of securities fraud.
They used that power to charge Lee Farkas, the founder of Florida-based mortgage lender Taylor Bean and Whitaker, who was convicted along with seven others in a $3 billion fraud scheme.
When prosecutors brought charges against Hong Kong company Megaupload for what they allege was a massive scheme to facilitate transmission of pirated movies, music and other copyrighted content, the Eastern District of Virginia claimed jurisdiction in large part because many of the servers that stored the digital content happened to be leased from a northern Virginia company.
In other cases, the Eastern District takes advantage of an ability that all jurisdictions have. If a target is overseas and their violation of U.S. law is not specific to a jurisdiction, prosecutors can bring the case in the district where the defendant first enters the U.S.
Thus, when Somali pirates were charged under piracy laws that date back to the country’s founding, they could be tried in Norfolk because that is where the pirates were first brought after their arrest. Last month, five Somali pirates were convicted in a 2010 attack on the USS Ashland off the coast of Africa; four of the five face automatic life sentences.
In cases where an international defendant could be tried anywhere in the U.S., the Eastern District of Virginia often finds itself favored in part because of its reputation as the “Rocket Docket,” said Michael Scharf, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and an expert in international law . The courthouses in Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk have long had a reputation for bringing cases to trial quickly and efficiently, and juries in the district have a reputation of being friendly to prosecutors.
The cases can have significant impact in other countries. Colombia’s politics were rattled by the arrest, conviction and 13-year prison sentence last year of a former top police general there who took bribes from a right-wing paramilitary group involved in the drug trade.
“Criminals don’t recognize borders, and as prosecutors we can’t either,” MacBride said.
Those who find themselves as the targets of long-arm jurisdiction see it differently. Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload, is in New Zealand fighting extradition and lobbing insults at what he calls a “malicious and unlawful” prosecution.
Ira Rothken, a lawyer for Megaupload, has questioned in pretrial motions whether Megaupload as a corporate entity based in Hong Kong with no U.S. offices, was properly served notice of the indictment.
More broadly, he said prosecutors’ theory that they can claim jurisdiction on cases simply because Internet traffic flows through the district gives them chillingly broad powers.
“Most folks who are running a business will have something, even accidentally, happen in the Eastern District of Virginia,” Rothken said. “The U.S. seems interested in imposing its political views. … Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s bad.”
A potential pitfall in pursuing international cases is whether the defendants will be extradited. The U.S. has been trying for more than a year to have Dotcom and his co-defendants extradited. A hearing in New Zealand is scheduled later this year.
Indictments filed in 2011 against several Swiss bankers for helping U.S. customers evade taxes have not yet yielded an extradition. And prosecutors are still hoping to extradite Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese national also indicted in 2011 on allegations that he was the ringleader for a massive international drug smuggling ring with ties to the militant group Hezbollah.
Generally, though, MacBride said, the U.S. has a good record of bring foreign defendants to the U.S. to face trial.
Linda Malone, a law professor at the College of William and Mary, said the effort applied to international cases is worthwhile, citing as a prime example the Somali piracy cases — one of which involved the murder of four Americans aboard a pirated yacht.
“These are some of the most serious crimes you can imagine,” she said.
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