District Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Prosecution Of Non-U.S. Citizen Arrested On the High Seas and Charged With Violations of U.S. Drug Laws

The World in U.S. Courts: Winter 2015 - White Collar Criminal

United States v. Aybar-Ulloa, U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, December 22, 2014

The defendant, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, was arrested by U.S. law enforcement officers with two others while on board a stateless boat in the Caribbean Sea, outside of any nation’s territorial waters. At the time of the arrest, the U.S. officials, who were guests aboard a Dutch warship, seized 721.5 Kg. of cocaine. The defendant was charged with violations of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (“MDLEA”) and he moved to dismiss the indictment on grounds that the act’s extraterritorial application to him violated the U.S. Constitution.

The Court first observed that the MDLEA expressly applied outside the territory of the U.S., thus overcoming the presumption that criminal laws would apply only in the U.S. The issue for decision was whether this exercise of jurisdiction was consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause.

The Court’s analysis began with the observation that stateless vessels “enjoy little or no protection” under international law. That principle is also reflected in the 1958 Convention on the High Seas, which the U.S. ratified. As a result, the Court concluded that the U.S. could prosecute defendants on such vessels as if they were U.S.-registered ships. That satisfied the MDLEA requirement that the criminal conduct have occurred on a “vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” and the Court found the indictment to be constitutional.

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