International Law

Detained defendant: Drug charges are illegal

One of three defendants detained on a U.S. Navy warship in the Pacific and brought to Miami for prosecution has asked a federal judge to dismiss the drug charges against him on the ground his arrest is illegal under international law.

Victor Medranda, the 23-year-old Ecuadoran defendant seized with two Mexicans in January, says in a legal motion that U.S. officials had no right to transport him to Miami for prosecution because drug trafficking is not a crime covered by universal jurisdiction.

Medranda’s motion, filed by his Miami attorney Arturo V. Hernández, is one of the first to challenge a detention under universal jurisdiction since patrolling by U.S. vessels intensified in international waters of the Caribbean and the Pacific in the last two years in a bid to disrupt drug-trafficking routes. In three cases over the last nine months foreign nationals seized at sea have been brought to Miami to be prosecuted for drug trafficking.

In the three cases, boarding parties dispatched by Coast Guard or warship captains asserted U.S. jurisdiction over boats that had been intercepted for suspicion of transporting drugs, chiefly bales of cocaine.

In one case, the boat was registered in Florida, But in two other cases the seized boats were not registered in the United States.

A fishing boat stopped off the Guatemalan coast was deemed stateless and a boarding party detained three Guatemalans who are now in Miami headed for trial.

In the Medranda case, the Ecuadoran was detained by a boarding party from the San Diego-based USS Rentz along with two Mexicans on a fishing boat about 300 miles south of the Mexican coast.

The captain of the fishing boat asserted that his vessel was registered in Mexico.

But U.S. authorities said they determined that the vessel was stateless because Mexican officials could not establish that the fishing boat was registered in Mexico.

In his motion, Hernández argues that charges must be dismissed because drug trafficking is not a crime any country can prosecute anywhere under universal jurisdiction.

Under this principle, six crimes fall under the umbrella of universal jurisdiction: genocide, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, war crimes, torture and forced disappearances.

“Drug trafficking has been held not to be an offense against the law of nations or a crime of universal jurisdiction,” wrote Hernández in his motion.

As a result, he says, the case cannot proceed in federal court because the United States lacks authorization to prosecute the matter under international law.

As authority for his argument, Hernández cites a 2012 ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling threw out the drug trafficking convictions of four defendants who had been prosecuted for drug trafficking after their fishing boat was intercepted by a Coast Guard vessel in Panamanian waters.

Defendants appealed their conviction on the ground that the law used to prosecute them – the Maritime Drug Enforcement Act – exceeded the power of Congress to define and punish offences against the law of nations. Appellate judges based their ruling on their conclusion that the crime had no links to the United States and that drug trafficking is not covered by universal jurisdiction.

“When conduct has no connection to the United States, such as the conduct at issue here, it can only be punished as an offence against the law of nations if it subject to universal jurisdiction,” wrote then Justice Rosemary Barkett in a concurring opinion.

Since drug-trafficking is not covered by universal jurisdiction, wrote Hernández in his motion, the criminal cause against his client — Medranda — must be dismissed.

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