In the Iguaran appeal, the defendant pled guilty to one count of conspiring to distribute cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act 46 U.S.C. section 70503(a)(1). On appeal, the defendant challenged the district court’s jurisdiction arguing that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the record does not establish that the vessel in which he was apprehended was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The government argued in opposition that the case had to be reviewed by appellate court for plain error because Iguaran did not raise his jurisdictional objection in the district court. The appellate court rejected the argument finding that the district court’s subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that must be reviewed de novo even when it is raised for the first time on appeal.
To be convicted of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance under this statutes the government must show that vessel was when apprehended subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Various circumstances render a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, including a vessel without nationality. This includes a vessel in which the master or individual in charge fails, on request of an officer of the United States authorized to enforce applicable provisions of United States law, to make a claim of nationality or registry for the vessel. If Iguaran and his coconspirators failed to make a claim of nationality, their vessel was without nationality and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.