Drug Trafficking Not an 'Offence Against the Law of Nations'

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 07, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The United States may be described as the world's police -- both in earnest commentary and feature films starring puppets -- but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that it doesn't actually have authority to police the world.

Tuesday, the Atlanta-based appellate court vacated the convictions of four suspected drug traffickers arrested near Panama, holding that U.S. had exceeded its authority by prosecuting the men, Reuters reports.

During a routine patrol of Panamanian waters in 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard observed a wooden fishing vessel operating without lights and without a flag. The Coast Guard informed the Panamanian National Aero-Naval Service. The Panamanian Navy pursued the vessel until its occupants abandoned the ship and fled into the jungle. When members of the Panamanian Navy searched the boat the next morning, they discovered approximately 760 kilograms of cocaine.

Panamanians authorities eventually found and arrested the boat's occupants in various locations on the beach and in the jungle. After an exchange of diplomatic notes, the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Panama consented to let the U.S. prosecute the suspects.

A federal grand jury indicted the men for conspiracy and actual possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and for actual possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment "based upon the lack of jurisdiction and the unconstitutionality of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) as applied to [their] conduct."

Upon a magistrate judge's recommendation, the district court denied motion, finding that the MDLEA was constitutional as applied because Congress and several courts had determined that drug trafficking was "universally condemned" by various nations with "reasonably developed" legal systems. The court also reasoned that the Act "limits the actors that have standing to challenge the validity of an MDLEA prosecution on international law grounds."

The appeal presented a novel issue about the scope of congressional power to proscribe conduct abroad: whether the MDLEA exceeds the power of Congress to "define and punish ... Offences against the Law of Nations," as applied to the defendants' drug-trafficking activities.

The Eleventh Circuit concluded that drug trafficking is not an "Offence against the Law of Nations" and that Congress cannot constitutionally proscribe the defendants' conduct under the Offences Clause, so it vacated the convictions.

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