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Jurisdiction to search and prosecute defendants on vessel without nationality authorized


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.

The appellate court rejected the defendants’ arguments finding that their statutory jurisdictional argument cannot overcome the conclusive proof provision of the MDLEA. The statute plainly states that the certification from the foreign country conclusively proves that the Guatemalan government could neither confirm nor deny the boat’s registry. The certification also established the fact that Guatemala did not affirmatively assert registry. The requirement of statelessness under the MDLEA does not turn on actual statelessness but rather on the response of the foreign government.

The defendants’ argument that actual registry prevails over the certification misses the mark. Even assuming as true the various contentions by the defendants – that they provided the boat’s registration to the Coast Guard, that the Coast Guard failed in bad faith to convey the information in that document to the Guatemalan government, and that failure violated the U. S.’s obligation to Guatemala – the defendants’ international law argument does not touch the conclusion that the U.S. properly exercised statutory jurisdiction over the prosecution.

The appellate court found that Congress did not authorize these defendants charged with these federal crimes to litigate an MDLEA prosecution for those complaints which the Guatemalan government may raise to the U.S. government. The conclusive proof the Coast Guard must receiver from the foreign government does not specify the requisite form of the prior notice to the foreign government. Whatever prior notice may be required by international law does not affect the requirements under the MDLEA, which in this federal drug case were met.

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