Captain's Appeal Goes Down With Cocaine Shipment

By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you're going to smuggle drugs, be sure to obey all traffic laws.

We're talking transportation regulations, like boating laws that say a ship's captain must turn on navigation lights at night. That's what brought down a captain on the waters between Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

That, and the bricks of cocaine he left on deck. Police saw the drugs and arrested him and his crew for breaking other trafficking laws.

1,424 Kilos

In United States v. Juan Francisco Emilio Carbajal-Valdez, the legal question was whether the trial court mistakenly imposed a sentence based on the defendant's own admission. The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals said the trial judge made no mistake.

It started one dark and wavy night as Valdez piloted his boat off the coast of Puerto Rico. His navigation lights were out, so police approached to check it out.

As they boarded, officers saw white, brick-shaped objects on the deck. It was cocaine, about 1,434 kilos with a street value of more than $28 million in Los Angeles.

Valdez later admitted that he was the captain of the vessel and was paid $50,000 to transport the drugs. But when he was sentenced to 168 months in prison, he appealed.

Captain's Orders

Valdez complained because his crew members were sentenced to 135 months each. The trial judge had enhanced his sentence because he was the captain.

The appellate judges said the trial court should have spelled out the basis for the enhancement, but they were "reluctant to exalt form over substance." The defendant had admitted his captain status, and took charge of the course.

Judge Bruce Selya noted federal sentencing guidelines do not define "captain." So, he said, the word should be given its plain and ordinary meaning.

"[M]oreover, the appellant's self-identification, considered alongside his actual conduct in procuring the vessel, taking it to the loading point, receiving the itinerary, and steering the boat, furnished an adequate predicate for the court below to apply the captain enhancement," he wrote for the unanimous panel.

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