A federal jury in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida recently acquitted Patrick Campbell on charges that alleged he attempted and conspired to violate U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.  As we reported at the time of his arrest last year, Campbell, who is from Sierra Leone, was detained at JFK Airport as soon as he cleared customs and was found to have uranium inside shoes packed in his luggage.  Prior to his U.S. arrival (and immediate arrest), according to the government, Campbell had been communicating with an undercover ICE agent in Ft. Lauderdale in order to arrange the sale of uranium from Sierra Leone to Iran.

We surmised at the time of his initial charging that Campbell had arguably done nothing in the United States that constituted an attempt or conspiracy to commit a U.S. sanctions violation simply by entering the United States.  Because the Iran Transactions and Sanctions Regulations cover only exports from the United States (which this was not) or exports by a U.S. person (which Campbell was only by virtue of being physically present in the United States), he could only be convicted for what he actually did while in the United States.  The Justice Department tested those boundaries, and a jury wasn’t convinced.  A great deal of credit should be given to Campbell’s attorney, Richard Serafini.

We spoke with Mr. Serafini about the case and the arguments he made to the jury in Campbell’s defense.  Mr. Serafini said that he emphasized to the jury that the Justice Department had not shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Campbell had done anything with the specific intent to violate U.S. sanctions.  In addition, he said that he told the jury that Campbell should not be considered to have committed any criminal acts as a U.S. person simply because he was lured to enter the United States by law enforcement.  Mr. Serafini said that he finally impressed upon the jury that, regardless of any criminal act that may have been committed, Campbell had been entrapped by the ICE agent to do so.

While no one can know what may have led the jury to acquit, it is certainly noteworthy that one or more of those arguments possibly resonated with jurors.  The jury instructions shed a little more light in that the court explained an attempt must be “more than simply preparing” and have a ”substantial step … that would normally result in committing the offence.”  What did Campbell do in the United States to meet that requirement?  Having uranium in your luggage could be seen by a jury as “simply preparing.”  As for conspiracy, the jury rightfully asked the court during deliberation whether the undercover agent could be part of the conspiracy.  The court responded simply, “No, a government agent cannot be a co-conspirator.”  In sum, it looks like the facts didn’t fit the crime and a well-marshaled defense portrayed that.

In so far as Campbell’s case has a bearing on subsequent sanctions prosecutions, we may have been clairvoyant in our warning last September:

As the stretch of sanctions includes more foreign individuals and their subsequent imprisonment, the United States may find itself retreating from expanding prosecution after a successful defense or even international criticism that U.S. sanctions as so applied are too attenuated for a reasonable interpretation of the sanctions’ purpose or the laws themselves.

Campbell’s acquittal sends the Justice Department back to the drawing board to reconsider future prosecutions based on undercover operations targeting foreign persons and inviting them to the United States for their unbeknownst arrest.  As we reported in the case of a Russian caught up a similar operation last year, the resulting arrest stirred U.S.-Russian diplomatic waters and resulted in his return to Russia after pleading guilty.  Be careful what you do on the Internet, and that goes for the government too.