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Does The U.S. Have Criminal Jurisdiction Over Boats In International Waters?


In most cases, U.S. criminal law does not apply to acts that occur outside of the United States. But in its efforts to curb the international drug trade, Congress adopted the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. This Act effectively gives federal prosecutors extra-territorial jurisdiction to pursue foreign nationals in U.S. courts for alleged drug crimes.

More precisely, the MDLEA makes it a crime for any person to “possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance while on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” This includes any vessels owned by a U.S. citizen or registered under this country’s flag. But it also extends to vessels registered to a foreign country if that nation has “consented or waived objection to” enforcement of U.S. drug laws.

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Cocaine Smuggling Convictions

The MDLEA’s jurisdiction also covers any “vessel without nationality.” This covers a scenario where U.S. law enforcement stops a vessel and the “master or individual in charge” of the boat fails to answer a request for the “nationality or registry for that vessel.”

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed a case involving the use of MDLEA jurisdiction. This case, United States v. Estrada, began in February 2019, when the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted two fishing boats in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The two defendants in this case were on the first boat stopped.

A Coast Guard inspection of the first boat “found no flag, no registration documents, no registration numbers on the hull, no listed homeport, no name on the vessel, and no other indicia of nationality,” according to court records. As such, the Coast Guard decided it had jurisdiction under the MDLEA to search the boat as a “vessel without nationality.”

The search uncovered more than 2,200 kilograms of cocaine. Federal prosecutors in Florida subsequently charged all four men on the boat with drug smuggling under the MDLEA. The two defendants in this appeal were convicted but challenged their sentence. More to the point, they challenged the existence of U.S. jurisdiction under the MDLEA as the Coast Guard never asked them to “identify the individual in charge of the vessel,” as required by the statute.

The 11th Circuit, however, said the Coast Guard did not necessarily have to ask for the “individual in charge” of the boat. Rather, it was acceptable for the Coast Guard to ask all of the people on the boat if anyone wished to make a claim of nationality. Here, the Coast Guard asked each occupant in English and Spanish “about the nationality of the smuggling vessel.” They also inquired as to who was the Master of the boat. None of the crewmembers answered either question. This “failure to respond” was, as far as the 11th Circuit was concerned, sufficient to establish U.S. jurisdiction over the vessel and its occupants.

Speak with Florida Criminal Defense Attorney Jose Baez Today

Federal drug laws are among the strictest in the United States. So if you are facing any sort of possession with intent to distribute or smuggling charge, you need to work with an experienced Orlando drug crimes lawyer who can represent you in court. Contact the Baez Law Firm today to schedule a consultation with a member of our team.


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