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Recently the United States has been applying sanctions against individuals, such as Vladimir Putin's adult daughters. This isn't a new thing by any stretch, but I wondered recently why this isn't considered a violation of the bill of attainder clause of the U.S. Constitution. Here are some possibilities I can think of:

  • The sanctions are against non-U.S. citizens. (Presumably this could not be done to a political opponents' children.)
  • Specific sanctions are handled by the executive rather than the legislative branch.
  • Individual targeting is allowed if it's part of a legitimate foreign policy aim. (This answer suggests as much in response to a similar question about the fifth amendment.)
  • Perhaps these sanctions avoid referring to specific individuals in some legally significant way.

I'm not sure if any or all of these make a difference.

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The Constitutional proviso of Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 states that "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed". This does not preclude a legal finding against the interest of an individual (e.g. a law can be passed whereby a person is punished for committing a certain act). It is important to understand that this clause means that Congress cannot pass a law declaring an individual to be guilty – this limits the legislative branch, not the executive or judicial branches. Congress can pass a general law and then the executive and judicial branches can enforce that law against an individual.

Sanctions against an individual are routinely imposed by the executive branch (the IRS can fine you, Securities Exchange Commission can fine you, HUD can fine you, Homeland Security can sanction you in various ways...). Actions against an individual always start with the executive branch. You can contest an executive action on various grounds, such as "exceeds authority" or "unconstitutionality of underlying law", which then brings in the judicial branch. A "bill of attainder" would be a law passed by Congress that declares Katerina and Maria Vladimirovna to be guilty, end of story, and no such law was enacted.

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    Could the executive branch freeze U.S. citizen Jim Smith because he was supporting Russia in some way? Or is it different for citizens and non-citizens?
    – adam.baker
    Apr 7 at 17:22
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    A potential difference arises from the 14th Amendment (and reverse incorporation), which brings citizenship and "within its jurisdiction" into the picture. But the exec doesn't actually freeze people, and what triggers economic sanctions is more specific than "supporting Russia". You'd have to describe a more concrete scenario to see what actions would be legal. Right now, for example, you can't do business with Sberbank, and you can't invest in Russia, even as a citizen.
    – user6726
    Apr 7 at 18:19
  • @adam.baker Can the executive branch freeze U.S. citizen Jim Smith because he robbed a bank, killed 3 people, and was found with a piece of glassware in his car that is sometimes used to enhance a drug-taking experience?
    – user253751
    Apr 8 at 10:15
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    @user253751 Not without giving him a day in court, I'd hope....
    – adam.baker
    Apr 8 at 11:13
  • @adam.baker taking him to court is already "freezing him" isn't it?
    – user253751
    Apr 8 at 11:29

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