Conviction for Conduct on the High Seas Affirmed Even Though There Was No Connection to the U.S.

The World in U.S. Courts: Spring 2013 - White Collar

United States v. Carvajal (U.S. District Court, D.D.C., Feb. 20, 2013)

A district court in Washington, D.C. affirms the conviction of two foreign nationals accused of violating drug trafficking laws in connection with the transportation of cocaine by ship from Colombia. The Court acknowledges that neither defendants’ conduct nor the drugs has any connection with the U.S., but rejects challenges under the applicable statute and, as most relevant here, the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. While aspects of the Court’s decision are unique to crimes committed on the high seas, others appear to have more general applicability.


Two Columbian defendants admitted to being members of an international drug trafficking conspiracy which used “stateless vessels” having no national registration to transport cocaine from Columbia to a rendezvous point in international waters near Honduras. Both vessels ultimately were seized by Columbia law enforcement authorities, and the defendants were extradited to the United States, where they were tried and convicted (with other defendants) under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (“MDLEA”). The United States admitted that neither of the defendants had ever been on the seized vessels and that none of the illegal acts occurred in an area under U.S. jurisdiction. Nor did the U.S. claim that any of the cocaine was destined for the U.S.


The court describes the case as “at the far reaches of Congress’s constitutional power to criminalize extraterritorial conduct,” and as presenting a “close question” as to which there was little precedent.

Under MDLEA, it is a crime for any person “on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States on the high seas” to engage in drug trafficking. The court upheld the statute’s validity as a general matter, finding that the U.S. Constitution specifically authorized Congress to “define and punish . . . felonies committed on the high seas.” The court also concluded that MDLEA could be applied extraterritorially because Congress intended the law to apply to conduct outside the U.S.

Even if the statute could apply extraterritorially in the abstract the defendants argued that as to them a prosecution would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Due process Clause because their conduct was in no way connected to the U.S. The court agreed that there was no such connection, but held that the U.S. Constitution only required that the prosecution not be “arbitrary or fundamentally unfair.” It further concluded that the present prosecution was neither, because the defendants, being part of a sophisticated criminal enterprise, knew that their conduct was illegal and potentially subject to prosecution and had engaged in the sea-based narcotics conspiracy at issue precisely to avoid law enforcement and prosecution.

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