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Statute making it a crime to operate a submersible vessel in international waters without nationality is constitutional; U.S. v. Ibarguen-Mosquera

United States v. Ibarguen-Mosquera is the latest of many Eleventh Circuit cases testing the consititutionality of a seizure of a boat by the Coast Guard on international waters. Here the seizure of this boat resulted in a Federal criminal offense. Defendants were crew members aboard a vessel described as an unmarked semi-submersible vessel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Colombia. The vessel was spotted sitting low in the water by the Coast Guard which sent a helicopter to investigate. As the Coast Guard helicopter began picking up crew members, the vessel sank as the crew member jumped in the water. All were charged with violations of the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act (DTVIA), 18 U.S.C. section 2285, which makes it a federal crime to operate a submersible vessel in international waters without nationality and with intent to evade detection. The law was designed to prohibit use of vessels intended to evade detection from use in trafficking in drugs, weapons, and people.

The defendants challenged the constitutionality of the statute on four grounds:
• the enactment exceeded Article I powers • the phrase semi-submersible and intent to evade are unconstitutionally vague;
• it shifts the burden onto defendants to prove they are not engaging in drug trafficking and therefore a denies them procedural Due Process;
• it is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.
The court concluded that stateless vessels are considered “international pariahs” that have no internationally recognized right to navigate freely on the high seas and international law authorizes any nation to seize these vessels.

The court rejected the void for vagueness claim. The court found their conduct is covered under the plain English meaning of intent to evade by traveling low in the water in a vessel painted ocean blue without headlights or signals.

The court rejected the Due Process challenge. The defendants claimed the statute is a due process violation because it redefines the drug trafficking by eliminating the requirement of drug possession. The court found the statute was enacted in part to prevent a new evil of boats used primarily for smuggling weapons or people as well as drugs.

Defendant made a substantive Due Process claim arguing the law is not rationally related to any legitimate government interest. The Court reiterated that these ships have no utility other than to transport drugs or weapons and can travel long distances without refueling and are difficult to detect. The Court found the governments’ interest in legitimating these boats is legitimate.