Courts Have Gone Overboard in Applying the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act

By Elaina Aquila

Abstract

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), enacted through Congress’s power to “define and punish . . . Felonies Committed on the high Seas,” prosecutes individuals for drug trafficking “on board” vessels. Individuals often raise jurisdictional defenses in U.S. courts when prosecuted under MDLEA, and scholarship in the area argues about whether the Constitution permits MDLEA to reach drug traffickers who are on the high seas. Recently, courts have begun using MDLEA to prosecute foreign nationals located in a foreign nation who are not on board a vessel as conspirators. However, no court has fully examined Congress’s authority to enact a statute with this reach or engaged in a comprehensive statutory interpretation of MDLEA’s conspiracy provision.

This Note examines MDLEA from two perspectives. First, it examines whether Congress has constitutional authority to enact a law prosecuting drug trafficking by a foreign national on land in a foreign nation to determine the validity of such law. Because the Constitution grants Congress the power to punish crimes on the high seas, this inquiry depends on whether conspiracy can effectively extend an individual’s conduct from land to the high seas. Second, this Note considers the statutory language of MDLEA to determine whether the law enables the prosecution of a foreign national located in a foreign nation as a conspirator.

This Note argues that the text of the statute limits the substantive offense by using the jurisdictional language of “on board a covered vessel,” and so MDLEA remains a valid exercise of Congress’s Article I authority under the Felonies Clause.