Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Feds Dodge Challenge to Pursuit of Drug Case

(CN) - Cocaine traffickers who neither left Colombia nor demonstrated plans to enter the U.S. cannot nix prosecution over their stateless boat, a federal judge ruled.

Luis Alberto Munoz Miranda and Francisco Jose Valderrama Carvajal, two Colombian-based members of an international drug ring, admitted involvement in a 2006 plan to ship cocaine from Colombia to a rendezvous point off the coast of Honduras, using two boats with no registration or nationality.

Colombian authorities captured one of the boats before it left the dock, and the second one after it ran aground on Roncador, an island that belongs to Colombia. The second boat flew no flag, had no registration information, and was operated by five crewmembers who claimed they had been hired to find a fishing boat that was supposedly adrift. The Colombian Navy recovered cocaine from the ship and the ocean, 320 nautical miles from the mainland of Colombia.

Though Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal never left Colombia, and there was no proof that the cocaine was destined for the United States, the U.S. Department of Justice asserted jurisdiction over the boat captured off Roncador.

In April 2010, the United States indicted Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal for conspiring to distribute cocaine using a boat subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA).

Upon their extradition to the United States in 2011, the defendants contested MDLEA's constitutionality as applied to foreign citizens acting in a foreign country, who never set foot on a boat under United States jurisdiction.

A federal judge in Washington refused to dismiss, ruling that MDLEA's application to their case was constitutional.

In October 2012, Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Before sentencing, however, the Colombians asked the federal court to reconsider their motions to dismiss, relying on the 11th Circuit's November 2012 ruling in United States v. Bellaizac-Hurtado, which held that MDLEA was unconstitutionally applied in that case.

"This prosecution under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) is a product of the escalation of a battle," U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote in reconsidering the Colombians' motions. "On one side are international drug traffickers, who constantly refine their methods for transporting illegal narcotics from country to country. On the other side is law enforcement, which must adapt its efforts to halt the illicit drug trade, a task made all the more difficult in an increasingly globalized world. In this case, the United States seeks to hold drug traffickers criminally responsible in circumstances not previously addressed by the courts."

Congress enacted MDLEA in 1986 to give the Justice Department authority to prosecute illegal drug activity outside the United States to the full extent allowed by international law. Under MDLEA, a "vessel without nationality," like the one captured by the Colombian Navy off Roncador, is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

In their motions to dismiss, Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal had argued that the boat captured in Colombian waters was not stateless, because only a vessel in international waters can be considered without nationality.


But the court found that the Justice Department had proved statelessness, noting that both the defendants and the boat's crew had admitted that the boat did not fly a flag, lacked registration documents, and was not registered to any country. What's more, Collyer noted, statelessness is determined by the boat's lack of nationality, not by where it happens to be.

Even if the defendants' argument had any validity, the ship had traveled through international waters, beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial limit of Colombia or other countries, before reaching Roncador, and there was no proof it carried any registration documents or a flag at that time, the Feb. 20 ruling adds.

Though Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal had argued that the boat had stuck close to the coast of Panama and other nations before reaching Colombian waters, it was impossible for it to have arrived on the island without having traveled on the high seas, according to the 70-page ruling.

Collyer concluded that conspiracy to use a stateless vessel to distribute narcotics falls within MDLEA's scope, because the defendants are part of a lengthy supply chain by which cocaine may enter the United States.

She then rebuffed several arguments that challenged MDLEA's application to Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal's cases.

The Colombians had argued that the law only applies to conspirators on board a vessel subject to United States jurisdiction, and they had never set foot on any such boat.

The judge disagreed, noting that the law was enacted to remove geographical barriers to efforts to combat the illegal drug trade.

MDLEA applies to conspiracy to use a stateless vessel to distribute cocaine even when the defendants were not aboard the ship at the time of seizure and even when the boat was captured in a foreign nation's waters, the ruling states.

The judge also found that the statute did not require United States destination for the drugs to establish jurisdiction over the conspiracy charges.

As to the defendants' argument that Colombia had not consented to their prosecution in the United States, Collyer pointed out that, assuming that Colombia's consent were required for jurisdiction, the country had consented by extraditing them to the United States to face those specific charges.

"This case stands at the far reaches of Congress's constitutional power to criminalize extraterritorial conduct," Collyer wrote. "While a number of courts have upheld MDLEA against constitutional challenges, very few have addressed stateless vessels seized in foreign territorial waters, very few have addressed the liability of conspirators who never set foot on a 'vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,' and none, to this court's knowledge, has considered whether the combination of those facts would exceed the constitutional reach of the United States."

The court concluded, however, that the United States could criminalize Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal's conduct under congressional power to "define and punish ... felonies committed on the high seas," as defined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

The fact that Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal, who are foreign citizens, never committed felonies in the United States does not exempt them from liability for conspiring with others who committed a substantive offense aboard a ship subject to United States jurisdiction, the ruling adds.

Collyer also found that Munoz Miranda and Valderrama Carvajal's prosecution did not violate due process, because the defendants could reasonably expect to be tried in a United States court for conduct prohibited by the international community.

"These defendants were on notice that, by using a stateless vessel to transport narcotics across the high seas, they were opening themselves to the possibility of prosecution," Collyer wrote. "As part of a sophisticated drug trafficking organization that was responsible for transporting large amounts of cocaine and as evidenced by their attempts to avoid detection and interdiction, there can be no doubt that defendants knew their actions were illegal and subject to prosecution. Moreover, Colombia's extradition demonstrates approval of the United States' criminal proceedings against defendants. Such extradition is neither new nor unknown to Colombian drug traffickers."

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