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 […]