(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.