Criminal Law-Stateless Vessel Analysis Incorporated into Federal Maritime Drug Trafficking Statute Ignored Bilateral Treaty-United States V. Matos-Luchi

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CRIMINAL LAW--STATELESS VESSEL ANALYSIS INCORPORATED INTO FEDERAL MARITIME DRUG TRAFFICKING STATUTE IGNORED BILATERAL TREATY--United States v. Matos-Luchi, 627 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2010).

Stateless vessels upon the high seas do not enjoy the legal protection accorded to flagged ships under international law. (1) As such, they are subject to the extraterritorial jurisdiction of any authority on the scene. (2) Following a history of legislative attempts to create an effective drug trafficking maritime enforcement power for U.S. authorities, Congress enacted the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). (3) In United States v. Matos-Luchi, (4) the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided whether a vessel suspected of drug trafficking and failing to assert vessel nationality qualified as a stateless vessel under MDLEA enforcement jurisdiction. (5) The court held that because the vessel failed to meet any of the criteria that would classify it as possessing nationality under the MDLEA, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) had authority to seize the vessel and subject the suspected traffickers to criminal prosecution in the United States. (6)

While on routine helicopter exercises over the Caribbean Sea, USCG officers spotted a low-flying plane dropping packages thirty-five miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (7) Suspecting drug trafficking, the USCG helicopter gave chase to a small boat observed retrieving and then jettisoning the packages. (8) The helicopter recovered the packages, which contained cocaine, and a U.S. Customs plane continued the chase until the boat broke down twenty-five miles from the Dominican coast. (9) At the request of the USCG, the Dominican Coast Guard detained the three men found on the small boat and tied the boat to the stern of their cutter. (10) Later that evening, a USCG officer questioned

the suspected men being held aboard the Dominican Coast Guard cutter. (11) The officer inquired as to the nationality of the apprehended boat and who was in command, but received negative and incomplete responses. (12) However, the defendants did state they had come from and were nationals of the Dominican Republic. (13) While the interrogation proceeded, USCG officers boarded the small boat in tow and found no indications of nationality. (14)

The USCG detained the defendants and brought them to Puerto Rico to be prosecuted in the territory's federal district court. (15) The defendants were charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting those crimes while on a "vessel without nationality," all violations of the MDLEA, placing them within the jurisdiction of U.S. enforcement. (16) The defendants' motion to dismiss for a lack of proof that they were aboard a "vessel without nationality" was held in abeyance while the district court judge proceeded with the trial. (17) The defendants' motion was renewed during trial and denied, as were repeated attempts to have the jury instructed on the stateless vessel issue. (18) The district court judge ruled the criminal conduct occurred aboard a "vessel without nationality" and therefore fell within the scope of the MDLEA. (19)

The jury in the federal district court trial found the defendants guilty of the charges of possession and intent to distribute drugs. (20) On appeal, the defendants challenged the sufficiency of evidence, the finding of MDLEA jurisdiction under the stateless vessel analysis, and the trial judge's employment of the preponderance standard to make that determination. (21) The First Circuit held that the MDLEA explicitly grants the jurisdictional determination to a judge, and that a preponderance standard usually accompanies questions of law handled by a judge. (22) Further, the court determined that a boat suspected of illicit activity, which fails to bear any indications of nationality and whose occupants fail to assert nationality for the vessel, are precisely within the MDLEA's scope and purpose. …