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Sex Laws in Thailand Part 1
US Sex Laws Abroad: The Long Arm of Uncle Sam

© Chaninat and Leeds, US Attorneys in Thailand

3 September 2009

This article is the first in a three-part series entitled Sex Laws in Thailand.  This first installment explores US sex crime laws under the Protect Act and the prosecution of US citizens engaging in illegal sexual activities in Thailand.  Part 2 explores Thai sex laws and their application to the local sex industry including go-go bars and saunas; Part Three addresses the activities of civil society and international law enforcement in Thailand working to enhance and strengthen sex crime laws and bring offenders to justice.

Sex Laws in Thailand Part 2: Laws Regulating Commercial Sex and Entertainment Places

Sex Laws in Thailand Part 3: Civil Society and Law Enforcement

US citizens, and even non-US citizens, may be surprised at the scope and reach of US federal law against the sexual abuse and exploitation of minors.  If a US citizen comes to Thailand and engages in sexual activity with a seventeen-year-old girl from a go-go bar, he could be subject to a penalty of up to 30 years in a US federal prison. Further, a non-US citizen residing outside the US may be extradited to the US based on trading child pornography with a US citizen.  This article provides a broad overview of the US laws controlling various sexual and pornographic activities outside of its borders.

1. The very long arm of the law – the extraterritorial application of US laws against the sexual abuse of children and child pornography

By way of example, on July 20, 2009, John W., a Canadian citizen who had been living in Thailand, was extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States to face charges in federal court in the State of New Jersey.  He had been arrested in London on December 15, 2008 on charges relating to the sexual abuse of boys and the production of child pornography in the Kingdom of Thailand.

John W. faces three counts relating to sex tourism (each count carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years), eight counts relating to the production of child pornography (each count carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years) and seven counts relating to the distribution of child pornography (each count carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years).  He is also subject to a maximum fine of $250,000 per count.

John W. was neither a citizen nor a resident of the United States, the alleged sexual abuse and production of pornography occurred in Thailand and the alleged victims were Thai children.  He had in fact never even applied for a US visa through the US Immigration-Thailand offices, and as such never actually set foot on US soil prior to the extradition. John W.'s alleged contacts with the United States consisted of electronic communications with one U.S. citizen, Wayne Nelson Corliss, who has already pled guilty to charges relating to sex tourism and child pornography.

John W.'s alleged crimes occurred between 2000 and 2002, so he is not subject to the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003—the “Protect Act”.  Among other things, the Protect Act provides for substantially stiffer penalties, removes the need for prosecutors to prove intent (i.e., that the defendant traveled abroad with the intent to participate in illicit sexual activity) and expands the list of persons liable under law to include more than the actual exploiters and principals involved in illegal businesses.

2.History of the Protect Act:

US federal law provides a penalty of 10 years to life for any person who knowingly transports a minor in interstate or foreign commerce or in any US commonwealth, territory or possession with the intent that the minor engage in prostitution or any criminal sexual behavior.  For those readers who did not study federal jurisdiction in a US law school, federal jurisdiction may be established quite easily by simply crossing a state border while traveling from US one state to another or having a prohibited item or communication pass beyond US state border is a that is required. The same penalty also applies to any person who, using the US mail or any means of interstate or foreign commerce or in any US commonwealth, territory or possession, “knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces” any minor to engage in prostitution or any criminal sexual behavior.  Criminal sexual behavior includes child pornography.

It is also illegal for any US citizen or legal permanent resident to:  (a) travel in foreign commerce “for the purpose of engaging in any illicit sexual conduct with another person” or (b) travel in foreign commerce and actually engage in “any illicit sexual conduct with another person”.  The penalty for the foregoing is up to 30 years imprisonment.  The same penalty is also applicable to anyone who attempts or conspires to commit any of the foregoing crimes or who for personal gain “arranges, induces, procures, or facilitates” the travel of any person knowing that such person is traveling in foreign commerce with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.  Illicit sexual conduct is defined as (i) any commercial sex act with a person under 18 years of age (reasonable belief that the person was at least 18 years old is an affirmative defense) or (ii) any sexual abuse of any person under 18 years of age, which includes any sexual contact with any person under 16 years of age regardless of consent.  The US federal criminal code also makes aiders and abettors liable as principals for crimes against the United States.

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