Justia Admiralty & Maritime Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The case involves Maximiliano Fígaro-Benjamín, a co-conspirator in a multi-defendant drug conspiracy case. Fígaro-Benjamín was part of a crew that transported cocaine between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas on a vessel named the Black Wolfpack. The crew was intercepted by federal agents in January 2018. Fígaro-Benjamín was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to import controlled substances into the U.S. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 292 months in prison.Fígaro-Benjamín appealed his sentence, arguing that the district court relied on unreliable evidence at sentencing and incorrectly calculated his sentence. He also claimed that the court did not adequately explain its sentence. His arguments were based on the testimony of a co-conspirator, José Javier Resto Miranda, who testified at the trial of Fígaro-Benjamín's co-defendants.The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Fígaro-Benjamín's arguments did not hold up. It ruled that the sentencing court did not err in considering Resto's testimony, which was reliable and corroborated by other evidence. The court also found that the sentencing court correctly calculated Fígaro-Benjamín's guidelines sentencing range and did not err in finding that he was a supervisor in the trafficking operation. Lastly, the court found that the sentencing court adequately explained its sentence. View "US v. Figaro-Benjamin" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed two defendants’ convictions for violating the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), which prohibits the possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute while on board a covered vessel. The defendants were arrested after their speedboat, which was carrying at least 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Ecuador. The vessel carried no nationality flag, but both defendants verbally claimed Ecuadorian nationality for the vessel. The Ecuadorian government neither confirmed nor denied the nationality. The United States treated the vessel as stateless and exercised jurisdiction. The defendants challenged the government’s jurisdiction, arguing that the relevant provision of the MDLEA under which jurisdiction was exercised is unconstitutional because it conflicts with international law regarding when a vessel may be treated as stateless. The court held that the definition of “vessel without nationality” under the MDLEA does not conflict with international law, and thus affirmed the lower court’s denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss the indictment. View "USA V. MARIN" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgment of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The case involved Asdrubal Quijada Marin and Juan Carlos Acosta Hurtado, two Venezuelan nationals who were apprehended by the United States Coast Guard in the Caribbean Sea. They were convicted after a bench trial for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine while aboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, pursuant to the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act.On appeal, Marin and Acosta Hurtado challenged the court's jurisdiction, arguing that the indictment should have been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and the evidence should have been suppressed due to violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. They also contended that their detention at sea for 48 days prior to indictment constituted unnecessary delay and outrageous government conduct.The Court of Appeals held that the District Court properly exercised jurisdiction over Marin and Acosta Hurtado under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act because Cameroon, the flag nation of the vessel, had consented to United States jurisdiction over the crew of the vessel. It also held that the Northland’s stop and search of the Zumaque Tracer did not violate the Fourth Amendment, so the District Court did not err in denying the motion to suppress evidence based on a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court also held that the District Court did not err in denying Acosta Hurtado’s motion to dismiss based on unnecessary delay arguments. Lastly, the Court held that Acosta Hurtado's claim of outrageous government conduct was meritless. View "USA v. Hurtado" on Justia Law

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17 people were killed a commercial tourism duck boat operating on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks, sank during a storm. The government charged the captain and the managers of the duck boat company, with felony counts of “seaman’s manslaughter” under 18 U.S.C. Section 1115 and misdemeanor counts of operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner. The government alleged that the charged offenses occurred on “Table Rock Lake, a navigable water of the United States within the Western District of Missouri and within the admiralty jurisdiction of the United States.” The district court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss, adopting a report and recommendation that concluded the prescriptive reaches of Sections 1115 and 2302(b) is defined by admiralty law and do not cover the alleged conduct. The government appealed the dismissal.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that a review of the statute’s history leads to the conclusion that the origins of seaman’s manslaughter are in the admiralty jurisdiction of federal courts. Here, the government objected to the district court’s reliance on Edwards as binding precedent regarding the status of Table Rock Lake and argued that the evidence of commercial activity on Table Rock Lake presented, in this case, established that the lake is navigable in fact. However, before deferring to Edwards, the district court reviewed all of the evidence submitted by the parties and found that the nature and frequency of commercial shipping on the lake had not substantially changed since the Edwards decision. Thus, the court wrote that it detects no clear error in the district court’s finding or conclusion. View "United States v. Kenneth McKee" on Justia Law

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Defendants in three consolidated cases were convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine on board a vessel, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute on board a vessel, and aiding and abetting. They challenged the district court’s denial of their pre-trial motions to dismiss the indictment. Defendants also argue that the prosecutor committed misconduct in his closing argument. The Defendants made individual claims as well.   Defendants argued that even if outrageous government conduct does not require dismissal of the indictment, the district court should have used its supervisory powers to provide the same remedy, asserting that the government should tread lightly in international waters, and the court should not condone mistreatment of foreigners with no connection to the United States. The Ninth Circuit wrote that pursuant to United States v. Matta-Ballesteros, 71 F.3d 754 (9th Cir. 1995), that is not a sufficient reason to hold that the district court abused its discretion by not dismissing the indictment. The court, therefore, affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motions to dismiss the indictment.   Further, the court held that a court has the power to dismiss an indictment for egregious violations of Rule 5, and that the proper inquiry is whether transportation to the United States as a whole was unnecessarily delayed, rather than whether there was some other district in the United States in which the defendant could have been brought before a magistrate judge more quickly. The court held that the district court did not clearly err in its determination that 23 days was not an unreasonable delay. View "USA V. SEGUNDO DOMINGUEZ-CAICEDO" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for assault resulting in serious bodily injury at a place within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Defendant was serving a sentence at the U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri when he entered the room of another inmate and attacked him, causing severe injuries, emergency intubation, and facial reconstruction surgery.The court held that a district court may take judicial notice that a place is within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States and not submit that issue to the jury, without violating a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights. Consequently, the court need not address whether the evidence at trial was sufficient for a jury to find that the Center is within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. View "United States v. Love" on Justia Law

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Vastardis, a citizen of Greece and Chief Engineer onboard the Liberian-registered petroleum tanker, Evridiki, was convicted of offenses related to maritime pollution: failing to maintain an accurate Oil Record Book for several weeks, 33 U.S.C. 1908(a); falsifying high-seas Oil Record Book entries, Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 18 U.S.C. 1519; obstructing justice in the Coast Guard’s investigation of the Evridiki, 18 U.S.C. 1505; and making false statements, 18 U.S.C. 1001. The district court imposed a $7,500 fine, a $400 special assessment, and three years’ probation. Vastardis was barred from entering or applying for visas to enter the U.S.The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions but vacated the portion of the sentence that precludes Vastardis from entering the U.S. while under court supervision. The deception at issue involved falsely documenting bilge water discharges that occurred when the Evridiki was on the high seas and were only discovered when the Evridiki was docked in the Delaware Bay port. Vastardis cannot be convicted in a U.S. court for crimes occurring in international waters, but the convictions here were based on the presence of inaccurate records in U.S. waters, so the district court had subject matter jurisdiction even though the actual entries may have been made beyond U.S. jurisdiction while on the high seas. View "United States v. Vastardis" on Justia 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