Imagine John Doe, a US citizen permanently residing in the United States. John Doe engages in questionable but otherwise legal conduct that goes against the current policy of the Department of State. Could the US government then proceed to enact sanctions against John Doe, similar to the sanctions on Vladimir Putin and other foreign citizens?

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    Sanctions are a political tool. If a citizen is subject to the jurisdiction of the US (which they are constitutionally), then they can use legal tools instead, i.e. arrest them.
    – uberhaxed
    Sep 11, 2023 at 20:49
  • @uberhaxed sanctions are often for actions that are very hard (if not impossible) to prove in court. I.e. see the sanctions on Putin's daughters - what crime would they be accused of if they were US citizens? Sep 11, 2023 at 20:56
  • Putin's daughters were targeted because who they are associated with, not because they are engaging in questionable conduct.
    – uberhaxed
    Sep 11, 2023 at 21:05
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    @JoeW an act against policy might be illegal, but it might also be legal. The question simply excludes illegal acts from consideration. (The exclusion is probably not necessary but should serve to underscore the fact that the sanctions in question are distinct from punishments imposed by a court after a criminal conviction.) The vagueness isn't particularly significant. Think of the question as "is there any conduct for which a US citizen can be sanctioned?" It's more of a broad question than a vague one, but it admits a specific answer, either yes or no.
    – phoog
    Sep 12, 2023 at 6:35
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    Civil forfeiture laws allow federal and state agencies to seize property of US citizens suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity but without any judicial process or conviction. It's not completely dissimilar.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:13

3 Answers 3


It does.

If you look at the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons, as published by the Department of the Treasury, you can find a number of US citizens, people with US passports or Social Security Numbers, and businesses registered in the US.

You can do that by searching the document for "citizen United States" to find US citizens or "(United States)" to find US businesses, passports and SSNs.

Under each entry you can find a tag (like [SDGT]). Together with this list you can check under which program a particular person was sanctioned.

As for the legality, I looked at 2 sanction regulations under which US citizens appear on the list:

  1. [SDNTK] - Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 598, According to Section 598.314 this is limited to foreign persons engaged in drug trafficking. Foreign persons are citizens or nationals of foreign countries, which may or may not be US citizens or nationals (§598.304).
  2. [SDGT]​- Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 594​ has the same definition of foreign person and also includes any person that assist these foreign persons (See 594.201, specifically Subsection (a)(3)).

In all cases I found for US citizens put on the list under these sanction programs, the persons in question are also listed as citizens, nationals or passport holders of other countries. So according to the law establishing the sanctions, they can be put on the list.

  • Interesting… I wonder how those sanctions are legal. Sep 12, 2023 at 12:50
  • @JonathanReez I included relevant information on the specific sanction programs and the persons they can be applied to. I am unqualified to comment on the legality/constitutionality of the sanction laws themselves.
    – xyldke
    Sep 12, 2023 at 13:34
  • @JonathanReez I'm sure there's a rationale somewhere. It may even have been tested and upheld in court. Someone at Law probably knows.
    – phoog
    Sep 12, 2023 at 17:44

If Congress were to attempt to pass a law that targeted a particular individual, this would not be constitutional as it would be a "bill of attainder".

The executive has limited powers to "sanction", as it can only act to enforce the laws created by Congress. Of course, if John has broken some law (or is reasonably suspected of doing so) the Executive can direct the police to arrest John or otherwise enforce the law in such a way that is detrimental to John. But if John hasn't broken any law, then the Executive can't enforce the law against him.

As noted in a comment, sanctions are used politically as leverage against people who are not subject to the jurisdiction of the US, not against citizens, who can simply be sued or arrested if they have broken the law, and have the right to liberty if they haven't.

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    What if the law was generally applicable to lots of people including some U.S. citizens?
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 11, 2023 at 23:56
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    Pretty sure that actions could also include preventing an induvial from doing any business with the government or with any company that does business with the government and that is something that happens all the time.
    – Joe W
    Sep 12, 2023 at 1:59

The USA citizenship itself can be revoked.

This is not often done, but can be done for being a member of certain organizations, dishonorable military discharge, treason or rebellion and dual citizenship under conditions not permitted by U.S. law.

Of course, the activities like that are likely to be classified as formally illegal, but in some cases they may look pretty innocent. Like a girl traveling to join as an ISIS wife may not have any obvious terrorist activities (like fighting with the gun or detonating bombs) committed, seeing all just as a personal love story. Still, her citizenship can be revoked (Shamima Begum, UK case but I see no reason why could not happen in USA).

While it may not be permissible to leave a person without citizenship at all, the citizenship still can be revoked if the person has another one, or could obtain if willing. This is common for the children of immigrants that often are, or could easily become, citizens of the country they parents are from.

After the citizenship is revoked, the former citizen has much less various rights than one previously had.

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