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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Upholds Sentencing|Crew of Drug Pirate Vessel

(CN) - The 1st Circuit upheld the drug trafficking convictions of three men apprehended aboard a pirate "vessel without nationality."

"Practically every vessel, including the legendary Flying Dutchman, has links with some country," Circuit Judge Michael Boudin wrote in the court's majority opinion.

A federal jury in Puerto Rico convicted Epifanio Matos-Luchi, Manolo Soto-Pérez and Ramón Carrasco-Carrasco in connection to their capture in 2007.

U.S. Coast Guard officers stationed in the Caribbean saw a low-flying plane drop several packages into the sea about 30 to 35 miles from the Dominican Republic coast, and watched as the defendants, who were in a small fishing "yola" nearby, approached the drop site to retrieve the packages.

When the officers descended on the scene, the yola fled but later experienced engine problems and its crew was taken into custody.

The Coast Guard recovered the packages, which contained 386 kilograms of cocaine.

Under questioning, the men said they were from the Dominican Republic, but they would not identify a captain or leader or reveal their nationality of their vessel, which did not bear any flag.

The men contested their sentence to 235 months in prison on several grounds, including jurisdiction, but the 1st Circuit ruled in a split-panel decision that Congress gives the U.S. jurisdiction over vessels without nationality to punish pirates and felonies committed in international waters.

"Neither the MDLEA [Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act] nor international law limits U.S. enforcement authority merely because the vessel has associations with another state," Boudin wrote. "Under international law, every vessel must sail under the flag of one and only one state; those that sail under no flag or more than one flag enjoy no legal protection."

The Boston-based appeals court found that although there was no single witness with a continuous view of the yola from the time it was first spotted until the moment it was apprehended, "there was abundant evidence from which to identify the defendants as the crew-members and the evidence is not less powerful because some of it rested upon reasonable inference rather than eye-witness identification."

Boudin wrote that the Coast Guard took multiple videos and photos of the ship, and ion scans showed cocaine residue on the men's skin and clothing.

The three men also argue that they were mixed up with the "real" pirates because the Dominican Coast Guard cutter that interceded upon their yola's engine failure also picked up the crew of another ship.

But the lieutenant of the Dominican cutter testified that the two crews were segregated on his boat and unlikely to be mixed up, according to the ruling.

The men also claim that if they were aboard the ship that was retrieving the packages, the government cannot prove they knew the bales contained cocaine.

"The defendants' yola was seen idling in the drop site before collecting the bales," Boudin wrote. "The yola lacked fishing equipment, despite defendants' claim at trial to have been out fishing; the defendants jettisoned the bales and fled at the first sign of the Coast Guard; and the defendants and their clothing showed traces of the drug. Nor is it common for valuable cargo to be entrusted to persons unaware of its contents."

Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez wrote a dissenting opinion saying the U.S. should not have claimed jurisdiction.

"I fear that the majority's focus on Congress's 'aim to facilitate enforcement' has overshadowed the considerations of fairness and international law that counsel restraint in interpreting the MDLEA," Lipez wrote. "The majority's interpretation extends United States drug laws to circumstances that Congress did not contemplate and that likely exceed the bounds of international law as well. In addition, the majority has lowered the traditional standard of proof for finding guilt. I would not reach either of those results in the absence of a clear statement that Congress intended its penal laws to reach so broadly."

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