In U.S. v. Lopez Hernandez, the defendants appeal their convictions under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) which criminalizes individuals for possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. In this case the defendants’ vessel fell under U.S. jurisdiction as a vessel without nationality. The U.S. Coast Guard officers stopped the four defendants in this appeal on board a go-fast boat without a flag in international waters about 120 nautical miles southwest of the El Salvador/Guatemala border in the Pacific Ocean. When the Coast Guard approached the boat, the crewmen began dumping packages overboard that were later found to contain 290 kilograms of cocaine. The four crew members were ultimately arrested. One defendant who identified himself as the captain claimed the boat was registered in Guatemala. The Coast Guard contacted the Guatemalan government which could neither confirm nor deny. With a certification that the ship was without nationality, the Coast Guard determined it had the authority and jurisdiction under the statute to search the boat.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the Coast Guard had information in their possession indicating the boat was not a vessel without nationality within the meaning of the plain text of the MDLEA.
While the Coast Guard stated that no registration documentation was provided to them prior to contacting the Guatemalan government, they claim they later found registration documents on the ship. The defendants on the other hand claim that the Coast Guard officers had the registration documents before it asked Guatemala about the boat’s registry.