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Eleventh Circuit narrows federal power to prosecute drug crimes at sea

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which hears appeals from district courts in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, recently ruled in a drug trafficking case with international implications.

The U.S. Coast Guard was performing a routine patrol of Panamanian waters when they noticed a wooden vessel operating without lights or a flag. They informed the Panamanian Navy, who pursued the ship until its occupants abandoned it and fled into the jungle. The Panamanian Navy searched the boat the next morning and discovered about 760 kilograms of cocaine.

Panamanian authorities found and arrested the boat's occupants, then allowed the U.S. to prosecute them for drug trafficking. They were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy and actual possession with intent to distribute cocaine and for actual possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, the law used to prosecute them, was unconstitutional. They claimed that the law exceeds Congress' constitutional power to "define and punish... Offences against the Law of Nations."

The Eleventh Circuit held that drug trafficking is not an "offence against the Law of Nations" and Congress cannot forbid it under the Offences Clause. They vacated the convictions against the boat's occupants.

If you have been accused of a criminal offense involving illegal drugs, it is essential to speak with an experienced defense attorney. They can help you build a defense and work for the best possible outcome in your case.

Source: U.S. Eleventh Circuit, "Drug Trafficking Not an 'Offence Against the Law of Nations'," Robyn Hagan Cain, Nov. 7, 2012

To learn more about federal drug offenses and prosecution, please visit our website.

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