What Laws Apply on International Waters?

February 28, 2022 Criminal Defense, Drug Charges

What Laws Apply on International Waters? A Look into the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act

Many people assume that when you’re on international waters, U.S. laws no longer apply. While this can be the case for activities such as gambling cruises and duty-free goods, it is not always the case.

Drug smuggling is a serious offense in the United States, and one that authorities do not take lightly. As a way to deter drugs from entering the country, an act was put into place for U.S. authorities to take jurisdiction over vessels—even if they are on international waters.

So what exactly is the act, and how does it work? It is important to go over the details so you can be fully aware of what can happen while out on international waters, as well as who to reach out to in the event that you or a loved one require legal help.

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) was passed by Congress in 1986 as an attempt to put an end to the overwhelming flow of illegal drugs being transported into the United States. The MDLEA is defined as:

Being on the high seas, any other waters within the maritime jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular State, and any vessel belonging in whole or in part to the United States or any citizen thereof, or to any corporation created by or under the laws of the U.S. or any State, Territory, District, or possession when the vessel is within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.

U.S. Code 70501 declares that trafficking controlled substances into the U.S. is universally condemned.

The act states that extra-territorial jurisdiction is given to federal prosecutors to pursue what they believe is an alleged drug crime. It is illegal for anyone onboard a vessel belonging to the U.S. or within the U.S. to produce or distribute illegal substances. That being said, under the MDLEA, it is a crime for anyone on a vessel to possess illegal substances with the intent to sell or distribute.

The act includes any vessel that is owned by a U.S. citizen, or that is registered under the United States flag. However, there is an extension to vessels registered to foreign countries if the nation has “consented or waived objection to” enforcement of U.S. drug laws.

The following is a list of different definitions under the types of “vessels”:

  • Vessel belonging to the United States – A vessel (ship, boat, etc.) that is owned by an individual who is a citizen of the U.S., the U.S. Government, the government of a State, political subdivision of a State, or a corporation incorporated under the laws of the U.S. The vessel could also have once been documented under U.S. law and was then sold to a person that was not a U.S. citizen in violation of U.S. law.
  • Vessel Subject to the Jurisdiction of the United States – A vessel without nationality; a vessel that is registered to a foreign nation; a vessel in the customs waters of the U.S.; a vessel in the territorial waters of a foreign nation if the nation consents to the enforcement of U.S. law by the United States and that is entering or has departed the U.S.
  • Vessel without Nationality – A vessel in which the captain or person in charge fails to make the claim of nationality where the vessel was registered when questioned by a U.S. officer; if the master or individual in charge claims the registry for the vessel which is not correct.

What the act ensures is that no illegal drugs are being transported in or out of the United States. So, although you may be out on international waters, the U.S. authorities and U.S. Coast Guard have the right to question a boat or ship they believe to be carrying illicit drugs. If the individuals on board fail to comply with the authorities and assert where the boat’s nationality belongs to, then they are able to search further. If there are in fact illegal substances on board, then the act allows U.S. authorities to take the individuals into custody and charge them with the applicable drug charges. If you would like to read more about drug charges in Florida, you can do so here.

Examples of U.S. Criminal Jurisdiction over International Waters

A prime example of how the MDLEA is used on international waters can be seen in United States v. Estrada, a case involving the U.S. Guards and federal prosecutors in Florida.

In Estrada, law enforcement offers uncovered 2,200 kilograms of cocaine on a fishing boat that appeared to have no nationality.

When the U.S. Coast Guard member stopped the two fishing boats, the initial inspection revealed no national flag tying the boats to any nationality. Under the jurisdiction of the MDLEA, the Coast Guard had the right to search the vessel and question the individuals onboard. Once the large amount of cocaine was uncovered, the four men were charged with drug smuggling by federal prosecutors in Florida.

During the court case, two of the defendants challenged the conviction—claiming that the Coast Guard never asked them to identify the individual in charge of the vessel, as it is required in the statute. They challenged the jurisdiction under the MDLEA if this question was never asked. However, the 11th Circuit verified that it was just as acceptable for the Coast Guard to ask if anyone onboard was able to identify the nationality of the vessel that was smuggling illegal drugs.

During the questioning and search, the Coast Guard confirmed that they questioned the individuals onboard—in both Spanish and English—if anyone was able to verify the nationality of the vessel. Further, they questioned who the “Master” of the boat was, to which they received no response. Since there was a failure to respond, the 11th Circuit reiterated that there were sufficient grounds for the Coast Guard to establish U.S. jurisdiction over the fishing boat and its occupants.

While there are plenty of other examples to refer to, Estrada highlights how the U.S. can take advantage of the MDLEA and investigate vessels out at sea that they believe to be carrying or trafficking illegal substances.

Find a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime—whether it be within the state of Florida or out on international waters—it is imperative that you seek out quality legal help from an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Florida. Finding the right legal guidance can help to make sure you find the best possible defense to your case. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have worked with clients all across the state of Florida. They have the experience and diligence required to take on and defend your case. They are prepared to stand in your corner and fight for your freedom. Call (850) 681-7777 today and receive a free consultation regarding your case.

Written by Karissa Key

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