Justia Admiralty & Maritime Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The Second Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions, after pleading guilty, of conspiring to engage in drug trafficking activity in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). Defendants challenged the adequacy of their unconditional guilty pleas.The court held that the government has met its evidentiary burden in establishing that defendants' boat was a stateless vessel and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; Section 70506(b) of the MDLEA encompasses land-based conspiratorial conduct, which Congress is authorized to proscribe under the Necessary and Proper Clause; although due process requires a sufficient nexus with the United States for those not on board a stateless vessel to be prosecuted under the MDLEA, in this instance, defendants' prosecutions satisfy due process; and Congress did not exceed its legislative authority in enacting the MDLEA pursuant to the Define and Punish Clause. View "United States v. Alarcon Sanchez" on Justia Law

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Defendants, three foreign nationals in a foreign vessel in the territorial waters of Jamaica, were arrested by the United States Coast Guard with the consent of the foreign country and prosecuted in the United States for drug-trafficking crimes under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). Defendants pleaded guilty and preserved their right to appeal the denial of their motion to suppress.The Eleventh Circuit vacated defendant's convictions, holding that the MDLEA is unconstitutional and exceeded Congress's authority under the Foreign Commerce Clause. The court also held that, as applied to defendants, the MDLEA was not a valid exercise of Congress's authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause to effectuate the subsequently enacted 1989 Convention Against Illicit Traffic Treaty and the 1997 Jamaica Bilateral Agreement between the United States and Jamaica. View "United States v. Davila-Mendoza" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendants' convictions and sentences under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). Defendants were convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute over five kilograms of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and possession with intent to distribute over five kilograms of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.The court rejected defendants' constitutional challenges to the MDLEA where the court has previously held that the MDLEA is a valid exercise of Congress's power under the Felonies Clause as applied to drug trafficking crimes without a "nexus" to the United States; the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause does not prohibit the trial and conviction of aliens captured on the high seas while drug trafficking because the MDLEA provides clear notice that all nations prohibit and condemn drug trafficking aboard stateless vessels on the high seas; and because the MDLEA's jurisdictional requirement goes to the subject matter jurisdiction of the courts and is not an essential element of the MDLEA substantive offense, it does not have to be submitted to the jury for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the court held that the district court properly exercised jurisdiction over defendants and their offenses under the MDLEA.The court rejected Defendant Guagua-Alarcon's challenges to his presentment for a probable cause hearing; the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant Palacios-Solis's motion in limine; sufficient evidence supported defendants' convictions; and because Palacios-Solis failed to show a Brady violation, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying his motion for a mistrial. Finally, the court also rejected defendants' claims of sentencing errors. View "United States v. Cabezas-Montano" on Justia Law

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The Second Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for engaging in drug trafficking activity, and conspiring to do so, in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. The court held that defendant waived his Confrontation Clause and jury trial right challenges to his conviction by pleading guilty.The court also held that the Due Process Clause did not require a nexus between the United States and the MDLEA violations that transpire on a vessel without nationality. The court explained that such prosecutions are not arbitrary, since any nation may exercise jurisdiction over stateless vessels, and they are not unfair, since persons who traffic drugs may be charged with knowledge that such activity is illegal and may be prosecuted somewhere. The court considered defendant's remaining arguments and found them meritless. View "United States v. Van Der End" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed Appellants' convictions for drug trafficking under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), 46 U.S.C. 70501-70508, holding that the protective principle of international law permitted the United States to arrest and prosecute Appellants even if, as they argued, their vessel possessed Costa Rican nationality.Appellants were on a small speed boat in the western Caribbean Sea when they were interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard and subsequently arrested. Appellants moved to dismiss their indictment under the MDLEA, which allows U.S. law enforcement to arrest foreign nationals for drug crimes committed in international waters, arguing that the statute exceeds Congress's authority under Article I of the Constitution and violates the Due Process Clause. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, and Appellants pleaded guilty. On appeal, Appellants again challenged the constitutionality of the MDLEA, arguing that their vessel was not properly deemed stateless. The First Circuit affirmed, holding (1) the protective principle of international law, as applied by the First Circuit, permits prosecution under the MDLEA even of foreigners on foreign vessels; and (2) there was no abuse of discretion in the sentence imposed. View "United States v. Davila-Reyes" on Justia Law

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Defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, while on board a stateless vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, 46 U.S.C. 70501 et seq.The Second Circuit dismissed the indictment, because the government failed to demonstrate, as required by section 70504, that the vessel was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. In this case, the indictment should have been dismissed upon the government's failure to demonstrate at the pretrial hearing that the vessel was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Furthermore, the error was not cured by defendants' subsequent defective guilty pleas. Accordingly, the court vacated the convictions. View "United States v. Prado" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendant's 132 month sentence for drug trafficking under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. The court held that the Fifth Amendment did not entitle defendant to relief from his mandatory minimum sentence; in light of international concerns, Congress was entitled to mete out hefty sentences to maritime drug runners; the inherent difficulties of policing drug trafficking on the vast expanses of international waters suggested that Congress could have rationally concluded that harsh penalties were needed to deter would-be offenders; circuit precedents foreclosed defendant's arguments about the constitutionality of the Act and its application to him; and defendant's guilty plea foreclosed his constitutional challenges to his detention. View "United States v. Lemus Castillo" on Justia Law

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A flag painted on the side of a vessel is not "flying" for the purpose of making a "claim of nationality or registry" under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, 46 U.S.C. 70502(e). In this case, the United States Coast Guard stopped a vessel in international waters and arrested the crew members aboard the vessel. The crew members argued that the United States lacked jurisdiction because the painted Colombian flag constituted a claim of nationality under section 70502(e)(2) that obliged the Coast Guard to ask Colombian officials about the vessel. The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's convictions for drug offenses, holding that the United States had jurisdiction over the vessel and its crew because the painted Colombian flag on its hull was not flying for the purpose of making a claim of nationality or registry. Finally, the court rejected alternative arguments. View "United States v. Obando" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed Oceanic and Oceanfleet's conviction and sentence for nine criminal offenses committed by the supervisory personnel of an oceangoing cargo ship owned and operated by defendants. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to prove corporate criminal liability where the jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt — with respect to any of the offenses in the Indictment — that any cargo ship crewmember was acting pursuant to corporate authority or with an intent to benefit Oceanic or Oceanfleet. The court rejected defendants' arguments that the sentencing court erred by grouping the various offenses; by failing to consider their independent financial conditions and separate abilities to pay the fines imposed; by imposing erroneously disparate fines on Oceanfleet compared to fines on similarly situated defendants; and by imposing a special condition of probation that improperly impacted related third parties. View "United States v. Oceanic Illsabe Limited" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSCLA), 43 U.S.C. 1331 et seq., charges against the contractor defendants for failure to state an offense. The court assumed arguendo that section 1350(c) may expose contractors and subcontractors to criminal liability and held that the regulations did not apply to nor do they potentially criminalize defendants' conduct. The court also held that regulations that were specifically directed at lessees and permittees did not extend penalties to contractors and individuals; because the applicable regulatory definitions unambiguously exclude contractors, more general liability provisions did not control; and no prior judicial decision countenanced this action, which was at odds with a half century of agency policy. View "United States v. Moss" on Justia Law