Published On: Tue, Dec 4th, 2012

US court rules law targeting smugglers in Caribbean Sea is illegal

MIAMI, United States – A United States Federal Court of Appeals has ruled that a law targeting drug smugglers in foreign waters, including the Caribbean Sea, is illegal.

In what has been described as a blow to the unrelenting war on drugs, the Appeals Court concluded that the 1986 law used to charge defendants is illegal.

The court’s ruling came in a case in which, two years ago, the US Coast Guard spotted a wooden fishing boat without lights and a flag off the coast of Panama and reported the suspicious vessel to the Panamanian Navy.

The Coast Guard said the Navy then pursued the boat until its occupants jumped out and fled. The Coast Guard said it then found 760 kilos of cocaine on board.

US officials said Panamanian authorities later arrested the four occupants on the beach and turned them over to US law enforcement authorities for prosecution.

But the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals here has now vacated the drug traffickers’ convictions after finding that the US Congress exceeded its constitutional power when it passed a portion of that law that was used to prosecute the smugglers.

The appeals court found that the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act could not be used for prosecuting drug smugglers arrested within the 12-mile territorial waters of foreign countries.

In the 35-page decision, the appeals court concluded that the US Congress lacked the authority to pass part of the maritime act under its constitutional power to “define and punish offenses against the Law of Nations.

“Drug trafficking was not a violation of customary international law at the time of the Founding [of the United States], and drug trafficking is not a violation of customary international law today,” the appeals court ruled.

In the Panama case, US authorities said three of the four defendants have already served their US prison terms and have been deported, but one defendant is still serving a seven and a half year sentence.

But, despite the appeals court’s ruling, US authorities said the case is of “first impression” that is likely to be challenged by the US Justice Department because of its unique significance.

Authorities said it does not apply to the US prosecution of drug smugglers arrested in international waters. Those prosecutions make up the majority of maritime drug cases filed in federal courts, officials said.

Officials also said the ruling does not affect the US federal prosecution of traffickers charged with using “stateless” submersible or semi-submersible vessels to import drugs on the high seas.

“If this decision stands, it’s not going to be a deadly blow to the war on drugs,” said Miami attorney David Weinstein, who once headed the narcotics section of the US attorney’s office in South Florida.

“But it is going to increase the level and depth of communications between the United States and foreign countries as they battle drug-trafficking together,” he added.

In the meantime, US federal prosecutors in Miami said they have intensified efforts to crack down on drug smuggling in the Caribbean.

US Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said he has launched an initiative to target narcotics shipments from Colombia through the Caribbean basin, stating that authorities have detected an increase in drug smuggling activity.

In highlighting the Caribbean crackdown, Assistant US Attorney George Karavetsos and Ferrer attended for the first time the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police meeting in the Bahamas last May.

“We are here because we recognize we share a common threat,” said Ferrer in his address, warning Caribbean police officials about the dramatic increase in drug trafficking in the region.

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