District Court Finds Question Whether "Go Fast" Boat Was Stateless Vessel, Permitting Jurisdiction over Defendants Having No U.S. Contacts, Is for Jury To Determine

The World in U.S. Courts: Spring 2016 - White Collar Criminal Law

United States v. Torres-Iturre, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, March 10, 2016

The defendants were arrested by U.S. law enforcement personnel in a "go-fast" boat located in international waters off the Costa Rica/Panama border. At the time, 711 kg. of cocaine were seized from the "debris field" where the defendants were seen disposing of the contents of the boat as it was being chased. They were charged with violating the MDLEA, and moved to dismiss the indictment on jurisdictional grounds.

The District Court in California acknowledged the general requirement that the facts of a criminal case have a "nexus" with the United States in order for the prosecution to be consistent with the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. But it also recognized that, under the specifically extraterritorial provisions of the MDLEA, and recognized international and U.S. constitutional law, the "nexus" requirement was waived where an arrest took place in international waters on a "stateless" vessel. The question before the Court was whether the determination that a boat was "stateless" was to be made by the judge or by the jury.

The Court noted that the MDLEA had been amended in 1996 to remove jurisdiction as an element of violating the MDLEA, apparently in an effort to take the issue from juries. But it also cited precedent to the effect that statutory jurisdiction, while not "formally" an element of a violation, was required by the U.S. Constitution to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and presented to a jury. The Court found that disputed facts existed regarding the "statelessness" of the boat on which the defendants were arrested, including, for example, that the record of defendants' alleged communications between the U.S. and Ecuadorean governments was incomplete, and that an Ecuadorean request for additional information about the vessel had been ignored. It thus found that the issue of the nationality of the boat must be presented to a jury.

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