On June 21, 2012 a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) in United States v. Chi Mak. Mak was ultimately convicted of one count of conspiracy to violate the AECA, two counts of attempting to violate the AECA, and one count of lying to a federal agent.

Mak appealed his conviction, claiming violations of his rights under the First, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, and the Ex Post Facto Clause. Mak lost on each claim he made, demonstrating the difficulties of calling into question the constitutionality of a statute that pertains to the national security and foreign interests of the United States.

The AECA regulates the export and import of “defense articles” and “defense services” out of and into the United States. 22 U.S.C. § 2778. Section 2778(a) of the AECA authorizes the President: (1) to designate those defense articles and services to be included on the U.S. Munitions List (USML); (2) to require licenses for the export of items on the USML; and (3) to promulgate regulations for the import and export of such items on the USML. Id.

The Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), within the United States Department of State, promulgates regulations under the AECA, known as ITAR. 22 C.F.R. § 120–30. ITAR defines the USML, which consists of twenty-one categories of designated defense articles and services that are subject to licensing controls under the AECA. Id. at § 121.1. Unless an exception applies, ITAR requires a license for the export of USML articles and related technical data. 22 C.F.R. §§ 123–125.

Technical data is defined as information which is required for the design, development, production, manufacture, assembly, operation, repair, testing, maintenance or modification of defense articles. 22 C.F.R. § 120.10(a)(1). This definition excludes any information in the “public domain.”

Mak asserted a First Amendment “vagueness” claim. The basis of Mak’s claim was that the technical information he attempted to export to China was protected speech. Although the AECA is not intended to control the content of “speech,” it does so incidentally. The court disposed of Mak’s First Amendment “vagueness” claim by stating that the restrictions on “technical data” are “content neutral.” Content neutral regulation of speech is permitted under the First Amendment so long as it advances important governmental interests.

In this case, such important interests include the national security and foreign interests of the United States. A munitions list that does not prohibit the export of technical data would be useless because the defense articles could merely be produced overseas.

Of particular concern for defense counsel in Mak’s appeal is his second claim about the jury instructions on “technical data” on the ground that they relieved the Government of its burden of proving that the documents did not fall within the “public domain.” The instructions seem to favor the Government because they are misleading to the jury. The instructions say:

“All technical data is subject to export control. Technical data is information required for the design, development, production, manufacture, assembly, operation, testing, or modification of defense articles. Technical data does not include information in the public domain.” This instruction continues with:

“You are instructed that the information in the Solid State document and the Q.E.D. document is required for the design, development, production, manufacture, assembly, operation, testing, or modification of defense articles. You must accept this fact as true, regardless of whether you heard any witness testify to the contrary.”

Upon reading this instruction it becomes clear that the issue of whether the information was “technical data” was already decided by the court. What’s even more disturbing is the statement that “you must accept this fact as true, regardless of whether you heard any witness testify to the contrary.”

The court disposes of Mak’s claim by relying on another instruction which explains to the jury that if the information was available in the “public domain” that they must acquit Mak on the AECA offenses. Why the court did not require the jury to determine if the information amounted to regulated “technical data” puzzles me. Apparently the Government can simply assert that something is “technical data” and only need to prove that the information was not in the public domain in order to sustain a conviction under the AECA.

Is it so totally inconceivable that something not available in the “public domain” is also not “technical data” that the government need not be required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the infomormation actually amounts to “technical data?” It seems unlikely that any corrected instructions would have remedied the situation to such a degree that Mak’s conviction should have been overturned, but the Government should nonetheless be put to the burden of whether the information is in fact “technical data” and not just that it wasn’t in the “public domain.” We will address the additional claims in part II of this post.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or ferrari@ferrari-legal.com.

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