D.C. Cir. Upholds Conviction for Colombian Drug Smuggler

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 2010, Luis Miranda -- also known as "El Gordo" -- was indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the United States, among other places. In 2012, after a federal court rejected his motion to dismiss the charges because the statute was unconstitutional and because the statute didn't apply to his conduct, El Gordo entered an unconditional guilty plea that purported to prevent him from raising the pretrial motions on appeal.

Well, now El Gordo, and an associated named Francisco Valderrama Carvajal, are appealing their convictions on the same grounds as before.

Never Thought I'd Be Arrested on a Boat

Of course, in the first instance, the D.C. Circuit had to determine whether such an appeal was foreclosed by the guilty pleas. For one limited argument, the answer was "yes," and that was whether the statute at issue -- the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act -- applied to his conduct. That would implicate the trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction, and only the court, not the litigants, has control over its own subject-matter jurisdiction.

El Gordo used "fast boats" that could, obviously, go very fast to transport drugs from Colombia to other Central American countries. It was this use of "fast boats" that got El Gordo indicted under the MDLEA, but El Gordo contended that, because all of the maritime activity happened outside U.S. borders, the United States lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him under that statute, which, as relevant here, applies only to a "vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States."

Into Court -- and Then Back Out

Even though El Gordo successfully got the D.C. Circuit to entertain the merits of his appeal even though he had ostensibly waived such a right as part of his guilty plea, he ultimately didn't have any success. MDLEA clearly applied to his conduct.

The MDLEA defines what's inside the jurisdiction of the United States, even if geographically outside, which includes a "vessel without nationality" and a "vessel in the territorial waters of a foreign nation if the nation consents to the enforcement of United States law by the United States."

And that's exactly what happened: El Gordo stipulated that he used "stateless go-fast vessels" to transport drugs through international waters. That's the same as vessels "without nationality," so El Gordo would seem to be done on that point. While he claimed that a vessel couldn't be "without nationality" if it were in a country's territorial waters, the statute doesn't define nationality in terms of where the vessel is seized, only whether it's "stateless" under international law.

El Gordo additionally tried to claim that the statute itself was unconstitutional, but the court found that issue foreclosed by the appeal waiver because they argued the statute was unconstitutional as applied, not that it was facially unconstitutional -- essentially trying to sneak the as-applied challenge in through the same door as the subject-matter jurisdiction claim. That, however, ended just as successfully as the merits of the jurisdiction argument.

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