WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday offered legislative language that would "automatically" punish family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, levying sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
The provision was introduced as an amendment to the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, which lays out strong penalties for people who violate human rights, engage in censorship, or commit other abuses associated with the Iranian government.
Cotton also seeks to punish any family member of those people, "to include a spouse and any relative to the third degree," including, "parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids," Cotton said.
"There would be no investigation," Cotton said during Wednesday's markup hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "If the prime malefactor of the family is identified as on the list for sanctions, then everyone within their family would automatically come within the sanctions regime as well. It'd be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof."
The amendment immediately sparked objections from several members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who noted that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process rights to anyone charged with a crime under American law.
"An amendment is being offered literally to allow the sins of the uncles to descend on the nephews," Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said. "The amendment that's being offered doesn't even indicate a requirement of knowing violation. … I really question the constitutionality of a provision that punishes nephews for the sins of the uncles."
Article III of the Constitution explicitly bans Congress from punishing treason based on "corruption of blood" -- meaning that relatives of those convicted of treason cannot be punished based only on a familial tie.
Family members of people suspected to be political dissidents in North Korea frequently disappear or are punished by the North Korean government.
Cotton warned that some wrongdoers in Iran may shift financial assets to family members to avoid forfeiture under U.S. laws, so family members must automatically be guilty of sanction violations as well.
"Iranian citizens do not have constitutional rights under the United States Constitution," Cotton said. "I sympathize with their plight if they are harmless, innocent civilians in Iran. I doubt that that is often the case."
The Fifth Amendment reads "no person ... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," and makes no distinctions regarding citizenship. In Wong Wing v. United States, the Supreme Court found that noncitizens charged with crimes are protected by the Fifth Amendment, along with the Sixth and 14th Amendments. The case was decided in 1896.
Several members of the Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledged that stashing assets with family members can be a problem. But they noted that other provisions in the bill would ensnare family members who conspired with those who violate the sanctions. Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) suggested that Cotton withdraw his amendment and narrow its language.
After some back-and-forth with Grayson and Royce, Cotton relented and withdrew the amendment.