As part of the war on drugs, the United States in the 1980s enacted a set of laws that greatly expanded its jurisdiction into the high seas in an attempt to curb drug manufacturing and trafficking aboard vessels.
These laws are contained in the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), codified in Title 46, Chapter 705 of the U.S. Code, Sections 70501 through 70508.
The MDLEA is a group of federal laws allowing the United States to prosecute nautical drug crimes even outside of its territory. It was first implemented in 1986 as part of the larger Anti-Drug Abuse Act and is still a vital law in federal drug prosecutions.
46 U.S. Code 70501 findings and declarations say, “Congress finds and declares that (1) trafficking in controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem, is universally condemned, and presents a specific threat to the security and societal well-being… and (2) operating or embarking in a submersible vessel or semi-submersible vessel without nationality and on an international voyage is a serious international problem, facilitates transnational crime, including drug trafficking, and terrorism, and presents a specific threat to the safety of maritime navigation and the security of the United States….”
A primary provision within the MDLEA makes it illegal for someone to take different actions while aboard a covered vessel.
These actions include making or distributing drugs, possessing them intending to make or distribute, destroying anything subjected to legal forfeiture, or attempting to conceal cash worth over $100,000.
Depending on the nature of the offense and the specific drugs involved, a conviction under MDLEA can easily result in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years or more, up to life imprisonment. Let's review these federal laws in more detail below.
Origins and Objectives of the MDLEA
As noted, the MDLEA was enacted in 1986 as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.
As drug traffickers increasingly exploited international waters to manufacture and transport illicit substances, U.S. lawmakers recognized the need for a more robust legal framework to address this growing threat.
Recognizing the limitations of traditional territorial jurisdiction, Congress sought to extend U.S. law enforcement capabilities to cover drug-related offenses occurring on vessels operating on international waters.
The MDLEA thus grants the U.S. government jurisdiction over drug offenses committed on board any vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, regardless of the vessel's location or nationality.
What Does the Law Say?
Specifically, the MDLEA makes it a federal crime to do any of the following on a "covered vessel:"
- To manufacture or distribute a controlled substance or possess a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or distribute;
- To destroy, or attempt to destroy, any item that is subject to forfeiture to the government under federal law; or
- To conceal, or attempt to conceal, more than $100,000 in currency, such as on one's person, in luggage, smuggler's hold, etc.
What Is a Covered Vessel?
The term "covered vessel" includes three categories:
- Vessels of the United States;
- Vessels under the jurisdiction of the United States;
- Any other vessel provided the person charged is a citizen or resident non-citizen of the U.S.
The U.S. extends a wide swath of jurisdiction between these three categories in both U.S. and international waters.
A "vessel of the United States" includes:
- Any vessel under the U.S. registry, including all vessels owned by federal or state governments, U.S. citizens, and U.S. businesses; AND
- Any vessel illegally sold to a non-citizen and placed under a foreign registry.
The term "vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States" is defined broadly to include:
- Any vessel in U.S. customs waters;
- Foreign-flagged vessels with consenting nations; and
- Stateless vessels, such as vessels without nationality.
This expansive definition enables the United States to assert jurisdiction over a wide range of vessels, including those registered in foreign countries, provided that the flag nation consents to U.S. enforcement actions.
Suppose a ship is stopped on suspicion of drug trafficking. In that case, the Coast Guard or other United States agent has to ask whoever is in charge of the boat its nationality.
If the nation claimed denies or fails to confirm the claim, or if the ship's captain doesn't claim any nation, then the vessel could be designated as “without nationality” and will be subjected to United States jurisdiction under the MDLEA.
What Are the Exceptions to the Rule?
The MDLEA presents two instances in which a controlled substance vessel is not subject to prosecution. These are:
- Vessels operated by common or contract carriers that are transporting controlled substances lawfully in the course of business; and
- Public U.S. vessels or individuals lawfully authorized to possess or distribute controlled substances.
What are the Related Federal Statutes?
46 U.S. Code Chapter 705 Maritime Drug Law Enforcement has several federal statutes, such as the following:
- 46 U.S.C. 70501 – Findings and declarations;
- 46 U.S.C. 70502 – Definitions;
- 46 U.S.C. 70503 – Prohibited acts;
- 46 U.S.C. 70504 – Jurisdiction and venue;
- 46 U.S.C. 70505 – Failure to comply with international law as a defense;
- 46 U.S.C. 70506 – Penalties;
- 46 U.S.C. 70507 – Forfeitures;
- 46 U.S.C. 70508 – Operation of a submersible vessel or semi-submersible vessel without nationality.
Penalties for Violating the MDLEA
Depending on the nature and circumstances of the offenses, controlled substance violations aboard covered vessels can result in severe fines and prison time under the federal sentencing guidelines if you are convicted.
While individual instances of simple possession generally result only in civil fines of $5000 per offense, trafficking larger amounts of controlled substances can result in mandatory minimums of 5 or 10 years in prison.
If injury or death occurs due to the violation, the mandatory minimums go up to 20 years—and for many of these violations, the maximum sentence is life in prison. Federal forfeiture laws are defined under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 46.
Legal Defenses for MDLEA Violations
You may have several potential legal defenses if you are accused of drug violations under the MDLEA. Some of the most common defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can challenge the jurisdiction. Your attorney may argue that the United States lacks jurisdiction over the vessel on which the alleged offense occurred.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of knowledge or intent. Since willful intent is a critical element in prosecuting this crime, you may be able to beat the charge if your attorney shows you were unaware of the drugs on the vessel or did not knowingly participate in drug-related activities.
Perhaps we can argue duress or necessity. In some cases, defendants may argue that they were forced to engage in drug-related activities due to threats of harm or coercion.
To successfully assert this defense, you must demonstrate that you had a reasonable belief that you faced imminent harm and had no viable alternative but to commit the offense.
To review the details of your case, you can contact us by phone or contact form. We provide legal representation throughout the United States on federal criminal matters. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.