New Jersey District Court Upholds U.S. Criminal Jurisdiction in Foreign Waters for Drug Trafficking

The World in U.S. Courts: Summer 2013 - Criminal Law

Munoz-Valdez v. Hollingsworth (U.S. District Court, D.N.J., May 31, 2013)

Although the district court dismissed Petitioner’s habeas petition for lack of jurisdiction, the district court decided to develop a more detailed record addressing the Petitioner’s challenge to his conviction. Petitioner contended that his underlying conduct of drug trafficking operations on a boat 173 miles off the coast of Colombia fell outside of the reach of U.S. criminal jurisdiction. Petitioner relied on a court of appeals decision which was not binding on the trial court holding that the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (“MDLEA”) does not confer U.S. penal jurisdiction over drug trafficking activities taking place in foreign territorial waters. But the trial court here found the validity of the that decision was uncertain in drug trafficking cases on the high seas or in-territorial waters where either the search of the vessel and the defendant’s arrest were performed by local authorities who extradited the defendant to the U.S. for criminal prosecution, or where the search and seizure was performed with the consent of the nation that had sovereignty over the territorial waters. The district court relied on other appellate decisions, as well as the various international conventions aimed at suppressing narcotics trafficking and requiring international cooperation, to hold that, without a binding and contrary appellate precedent, it would not be in a position to grant Petitioner relief even if the jurisdictional bar had been absent.

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