Drug Interdiction on the High Seas

The ability to stop drugs entering the United States on the high seas is a major part of the government’s efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the U.S. Most drugs entering the U.S. come by water on all types of vessels. Drug cartels trying to send large quantities of drugs must rely on shipping as a means of introducing contraband. There are dozens of major seaports along the east and west coast and the Gulf of Mexico that offer areas where concealed shipments can be snuck passed customs officials. There are too many cargo ships bring containers everyday and it is impossible for Customs to inspect every container and ship entering the U.S. Beyond the seaports where Customs inspectors are stationed, drug smugglers try to bring their contraband through unmonitored areas along the coast without detection.

In order to combat the flow of drugs coming into the U.S. on the high seas, Congress has passed a series of laws giving the Coast Guard, the federal law enforcement are charged with protecting the U.S. borders, authority to stop, search and seize boats that are carrying drugs or are suspected of operating as part of a drug smuggling ring.

Congress determined that trafficking in controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem. It determined that drug trafficking aboard vessels presents a specific threat to the security and the well being of society. For this reason it passed laws regulating vessels that could be carrying drugs through international waters and enforcing drug importation laws against these vessels.

One law passed by Congress is called the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act (“DTVIA”) which makes it a federal crime to distribute or possess drugs or a controlled substance aboard a vessel of the United States or a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. A vessel of the United States means any vessel registered in the U.S., any vessel owned by a U.S. citizen or U.S. corporation. A crime is committee on these U.S. vessels even if the vessel is found with drugs beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Drug laws of the United States prohibiting the possession and distribution of drugs can be applied to any vessel operating with any nationality. A vessel without any nationality is subject to U.S. jurisdiction. A vessel without nationality is a defined as follows:

  1. A captain makes a claim of registry that is denied by that nation;
  2. The captain fails to give the registry of the vessel; or
  3. The claim of registry is not unequivocally affirmed.

A vessel that is registered to any other nation is subject to U.S. jurisdiction if the nation has consented or waived objection to the U.S. enforcement of its drug laws. This means that if the nation under the vessels is registers does not object, the Coast Guard can board the ship and search for drugs. If drugs are found on board, the crew or anyone on the boat can be prosecuted under U.S. drug laws. Any vessel no matter what country the boat is registered is subject to U.S. drug laws if it is found within the territorial waters of the U.S.

If you or someone you know is accused of a being on or using a boat for a drug-related crime, call Miami attorney Ken Swartz at the Swartz Law Firm to schedule a consultation with an experienced, board certified criminal trial attorney.

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