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Federal prosecution must prove it had jurisdiction to charge defendants with drug trafficking on a vessel stopped on the high seas

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.

In this case the district court did not expressly make any factual findings with respect to jurisdiction. The government argued that in the defendant’s plea agreement he agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine with individuals who were on board a vessel that was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and it argued that this statement constituted an admission of jurisdiction. The appellate court rejected this argument because it has in past cases held that the parties may not stipulate to federal jurisdiction. Parties may however stipulate to facts that bear on the jurisdictional inquiry. The courts task is to determine whether the stipulated facts give rise to jurisdiction.

The court found that Iguaran’s plea agreement he did not admit to facts that give rise jurisdiction and is did not state, for example, that Iquaran and his coconspirators failed to make a claim of nationality upon request when the United States officials apprehended him. The record did not contain facts that would provide a basis for federal court subject matter jurisdiction and the appellate court is unable to determine whether the district court has jurisdiction. The appellate court decided to remand the case to the district court for the limited purpose of determining whether there was jurisdiction for this federal drug trafficking prosecution.  The government will be afforded the opportunity to submit evidence in support of its assertion that that Iguaran’s vessel was subject to the United States jurisdiction. Iguaran should be given the opportunity to present evidence that it was not.