Defining “High Seas Felonies” in Another Country

A district court recently ruled that Congress’s power to “Define and Punish… Felonies on the High Seas” extends beyond the high seas, to conduct entirely within a foreign country (on dry land), with no U.S. nexus. The case is U.S. v. Carvajal, 2013 WL 619890 (Feb. 20, 2013).

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) allows for the projection of U.S. narcotics law to foreign vessels on the high seas. Routinely the law is applied to the crews of vessels captured on the high seas near Latin American countries with no evidence they were headed our shores. I have argued in a series of papers that such universal jurisdiction over drug trafficking exceeds Congress’s powers under the Felonies power, which presumes a U.S. nexus. While the 11th Circuit has not been swayed from its longstanding prior precedent by these views, other federal judges have increasingly endorsed them.

Yet last November, the 11th Circuit in U.S. v. Bellaizac-Hurtado limited its prior cases by ruling that the Felonies Clause would not apply to conduct in foreign territorial waters, which are not part of the “high seas.”

Caravajal involved a defendant even further from international waters than those in Bellaizac-Hurtado: all of his activity took place in Columbia. But he was charged with conspiracy for a long-standing business of sending vessels through international waters.

The District Court acknowledged the novelty of applying the Felonies Clause to activities in foreign territory. But it concluded that the Felonies Clause reached such activity because the defendant’s co-conspirators committed acts on the high seas. Thus the defendant, who never entered the high seas, could be charged as if he had. (I do agree with the district judge that as far as the vessel goes, it is enough that it entered the high seas on the particular voyage, and it need not be arrested there.)

The Court’s reasoning simply restates the substantive theory of conspiracy liability. It does not explain why conspiracy principles can be used to expand the jurisdictional bounds of a constitutional provision. That is, what gives Congress the power to project federal conspiracy law past the high seas and into the foreign territory to conduct without a U.S. nexus.

Federal criminal law’s broad notion of conspiracy cannot necessarily be read back into the Constitution. This is particularly true when the constitutional provision has a specific jurisdictional provision – “the high seas.” The Framers surely understood that a piratical or felonious act on the high seas could be planned abroad, but chose to define jurisdiction by the locus of the defendant’s conduct.

Put differently, Congress’s ability to “Define” felonies is limited to those on the “high seas.” If Congress can define felonies on land as being connected to the high seas by conspiracy principles, it can presumably go even further – since conspiracy has no special constitutional status. Thus could it define conduct in a foreign country, with no U.S. nexus, that has some effect on the high seas (perhaps affects shipping) as a crime under the clause?

The Carvajal opinion does address my work on the Define and Punish Clause, which it declines to follow because while it “reflects extensive research, it ultimately simply reflects an “opinion of what the law ought to be, not what it is.” Given that my analytic approach the Clause is primarily originalist, I am not sure what this means. Certainly the 11th Circuit has not followed the broader implications of the understanding I develop, though it did accept the narrower ones regarding territorial waters. But the 11th Circuit already had a lot of water under the bow on application of the MDLEA to vessels on the high seas, which it could not easily disregard. Carvajal, however, is a case of first impression, and not in the 11th Circuit.

Indeed, Carvajal is in serious tension with another recent case in the D.C. District, U.S. v. Ali, 885 F.Supp.2d 17 (July 13, 2012), where another judge reached the opposite conclusion recently as to whether land-based conspiracy could be prosecuted as a high seas piracy. That case turned principally on the definition of piracy in international law, but also explicitly invoked constitutional avoidance principles, suggesting that federal conspiracy principles do not get read into the “Piracy on the High Seas” power. The Court in Ali also relied heavily on the Charming Betsy cannon, finding that it would violate international law to apply U.S. law to such conduct. It would equally violate international law principles of jurisdiction to apply U.S. law to a drug conspiracy in a foreign country – but the MDLEA explicitly rules out international law as a defense.

It is a neat coincidence that such cases of first impression concerning conspiracy and the High Seas crimes would arise within a few months of each other. And of course, all these extraterritorial issues are being decided in the shadow of Kiobel, where the distinction between the high seas and foreign territory has been argued quite sharply.

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