based off of the answer to this question: If one leaves the US to commit an act illegal in the US but legal in the country they travel to are they guilty of a crime? My first bizarre loophole question has to do with situations when someone is a US citizen, but consider themselves to be citizens of a different country with different laws..

Lets say you have two Individuals Bob, age 17, and Alice, who just turned 18, who live in, and are citizens of, some non-US country X, who are dating and have a sexual relationship. Say country X considers the age of consent 16, recognizes dual citizenship, and has an extradition treaty with the US...

However, Alice happened to have been born on a cruise while the cruise ship was sailing through US territorial waters, thus making her a US citizen. She has never done any of the things which can cause someone to officially lose their US citizenship.

Federal law states it is illegal for a US citizen to have sex with an individual under the age of 18 in a 'foreign place'

I'm wondering what, of any of these scenarios, would be illegal due to the above law and could theoretically lead to either extrication, or to arrest when/if they ever visited the US at some later date (and if one is possible but not the later).

  1. Alice never realizing she was born actually born in US waters and never thinking of herself as a US citizen, and she never visited the US or engaged in any of the activities that cause her to lose citizenship

    If the above would not be sufficient would any of the below situations potentially lead to prosecution:

    • Knew she was also a US citizen and had once claimed some minor right or privileged due to being a US citizen.
    • Occasionally visits a friend or relative within the US for brief periods, using her US citizenship to allow easier entry to the US, without going through the steps of the VWP.
    • Once stayed in the US with said friend/relative for slightly more then 90 days (beyond the length a regular tourist can stay) many years ago
    • Had just spent spent 91 day summer vacation with her family relative before returning to her home country and having sexual relations with Bob.
  2. Alice and Bob both live in and were citizens of X but originally met when both were on a vacation to the US, ultimately having a sexual relationship in their home country.

    Would Alice potentially face prosecution, if not would this change if:

    • The couple had (legally) engaged in sexual activity in the US prior to traveling back home
    • The couple originally met in a state where sexual intercourse would have been illegal and so waited until returning home before having a sexual relationship?
    • Alice bought bob plan ticket home, so she is officially 'transporting' bob? (section a of the above law applies)
    • Alice and bob did have a relationship prior to their visit to the US which continued during their US visit.

I realize that prosecutor discretion would usually result in no one choosing to prosecutor most if not all of the above cases, despite any legal right, but I'm asking rather they could face charges if a prosecutor did choose to move forward for some reason. I don't know why they would, maybe they are angry at Alice for some other legal act and this is their way of bending the laws to punish Alice in some way, maybe someone is putting pressure on Alice as some political maneuver to pressure her important father into something, maybe some prosecutor is just really gung-ho in prosecuting crimes for some reason whatever...

*Edit: Looking back at the law I linked I realized that the definition of illicit sexual encounter, when outside of US territories, is effectively defined as a commercial sexual act, which negates all my examples since no one was being payed. However, I'm not interested in the specific law so much as how any law making activities on foreign territory illegal would be applied to citizens, and only used this law because it was the only one I knew of to reliable reference. For now umm...just pretend that illicit sexual act part of the law was not limited only to commercial acts when answering this question? I think the heart of what I'm trying to understand wouldn't change if that law were slightly different and that's easier then my rewriting all of the above.

ps. A US citizen can travel to Angola and have sex with a 12 year old without any repercussion so long as he doesn't pay anyone if I'm reading the law right? That's something I really didn't need to know about. I knew I shouldn't have used that particular law as my example for this...

pps. Also the definition of "any person can be charged with a criminal offense" seems extremely vague since it doesn't specify what country/state laws would apply for deciding if the person could be charged with a criminal offense, and I'm sure if you look far enough countries have outlawed all kind of things as sexual offenses, like being in the presence of a women who isn't wearing a hijab.

  • 3
    Note 2: Your reading of "illicit sex act" is not correct. 18 USC 2423(f)(1) says it includes acts with someone under 18 which would be illegal under chapter 109A if they were committed in special maritime and territorial jurisdiction. Per 18 USC 2241(c), this includes sex with anyone under 16 who is at least 4 years younger than you, and anyone under 12 period.
    – cpast
    Oct 22 '15 at 2:59
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    @YviDe: No. Citizenship and nationality are purely matters of law. Who is a citizen and national of each country are solely determined by the laws of that country. It's not up to anyone to "claim" or "not claim" except as provided by the country's law.
    – user102008
    Oct 24 '15 at 7:45
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    @cpast: Most countries will not extradite anyone for something that isn't a crime in the country that is supposed to do the extraditing.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 30 '15 at 23:09
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    @derTruth Correct. For being born in a US territory to make someone a US citizen, the person's parents have to be in the US without enjoying diplomatic immunity. For everyone else, being born in US territory makes them a US citizen.
    – phoog
    Jan 25 '16 at 22:59
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    @dsollen yes. The overwhelming majority of those born in the US (probably more like 99.9% or more) are automatically US citizens, regardless of their parents' legal status. That's why there is controversy about "anchor babies," "birth tourism," and other issues related to birthright citizenship. I don't think a US ship in foreign territorial waters would count, but I don't really know.
    – phoog
    Jan 26 '16 at 19:24

Ignorantia juris non excusat

You can say I didn't know: it won't keep you out of jail.

Rather than delving into the specifics of your question, I will keep my answer general. If you break the law, you break the law. It doesn't matter if:

  • you don't know what the law is,
  • you didn't think the law applied to you,
  • you thought what you were doing was in accordance with the law.

"Break the law" is an objective fact - there is no subjectivity involved. The state of mind of the person is, in most jurisdictions, irrelevant; the common law doctrine of mens rea or "the guilty mind" has almost universally been done away with.

Now specific offences have specific defences. Generally, in underage sex cases genuine ignorance of the age of the person is one such defence. A court may decide that ignorance that the person was underage under US law may qualify for this defence.

  • 9
    Sorry to necrocomment, but I am not entirely sure if ignorantia juris non excusat fully applies here. If Alice did not know she was a US citizen at all this would appear to be a mistake of fact as opposed to ignorance of law?
    – Vality
    Jan 13 '17 at 20:43
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    Following on to Vality, we could specify that while Alice's citizenship is a combined matter of fact and law, if she were genuinely under the impression that the ship was in international waters at the time of her birth, and she was unaware of any other fact that would result in her being a US citizen, then it would be purely a case of ignorance of the facts. Oct 15 '18 at 22:08
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    I thought Mens Rea was enshrined in law as the basis for law... Mar 10 '19 at 2:01
  • @YetAnotherRandomUser mens rea is a common law doctrine - in almost all common law jurisdictions crimes are codified not common law crimes. In almost all jurisdictions some crimes require it but most don’t.
    – Dale M
    Mar 10 '19 at 4:23
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    @DaleM One of the original common law jurisdictions (England and Wales) has not been fully codified - murder is still a common law offence. I believe Mens rea applies to codified laws too. Oct 6 '19 at 7:21

Marc Emery might be a good person to ask. He was extradited from Canada by the US for sending cannabis seeds by mail to customers in the States, a legal action in Canada.


  • 9
    This is a little bit different since the shipping of the seeds extended into US territory. Could he have been extradited for sending them to a US citizeninCanada?
    – phoog
    Jan 28 '16 at 14:33
  • Good point, @phoog.
    – irth
    Jan 28 '16 at 15:43
  • That's pretty amazing. Especially as the USA refuses to extradite citizens accused of something that isn't a crime according to US laws.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 29 '16 at 21:30
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    @gnasher729 You're amazed that the US has expectations of other countries that they themselves don't hold themselves to?
    – corsiKa
    Mar 10 '16 at 18:40
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    @corsiKa: I'm not amazed the request was made. I'm amazed it succeeded.
    – Joshua
    Dec 27 '17 at 22:01

One line for Alice to pursue, is that in general a country will not extradite someone (even a citizen of the country requesting extradition) on charges that are not a crime in that country. Country X won't hold a full criminal trial to establish this, but they will have some standard (which varies according to what extradition treaties they have with the US) that extradition charges must meet in order to be considered.

irth's answer contains a case that may or may not be an exception to this rule (I don't know whether it was ruled that he would be extradited despite nothing having been done that Canada considers an offence, or whether Canada found a way to construe what he was charged with as being an offence). But even if the general principle doesn't always hold in Canada and didn't help that person, it may still be relevant to Country X and to Alice.

So, if the act is a crime in country X then since it occurred in country X on the whole X won't extradite because they will instead prosecute. And if the act is not a crime in country X then Alice may hope that X declines to extradite. This depends entirely on the law of country X (well, plus I suppose any diplomacy the US might bring to bear against X to "encourage" a particular verdict). Firstly they must refuse to extradite such cases, and secondly they must determine that Alice's US citizenship does not alter the relevant age of consent for her. Even if she wins, it's still not an ideal outcome for Alice. She may find herself unable to visit any countries in which her act would be a crime, for fear that unlike X they would indeed arrest and extradite her to the US.

So for example, suppose the US were to make it a crime for any US citizen to reside abroad (never mind whether that's constitutional: let's just say the US changes the constitution too if necessary!). Then one would not expect every country of the world to arrest and extradite all US citizens resident in that country, and especially not to do so for their own nationals who are US dual citizens. I've exaggerated the situation to something that quite clearly other countries do not considers a crime, just to remove any doubt that country X would consider the charges in the extradition request to be non-crimes.


A perhaps better example of the general principle. It is illegal under US law for US citizens to engage in commercial bribery in a non-US country, even if such acts are not illegal under local law. (I believe that the UK has a similar law.) The country where the bribery took place might or might not extradite a person charged with such an act, but many other countries surely would, and if such a person were to visit the US s/he could surely be arrested.

This avoids the complications of laws about sexual acts.

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