United States v. Pedro Nunez, et al (11th Cir. June 2021)

The Federal Docket

Drug Offenses/MDLEA – The U.S. has jurisdiction over defendants traveling in a “vessel without nationality” where none of the vessel’s passengers identify themselves as a master of the vessel, the vessel has no signs of nationality, no registration documents, no flag, or any identifying number, and there is no evidence reflecting a nationality for the vessel.

Pedro Nunez and three others were convicted of smuggling drugs under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. On appeal, the defendants raised several challenges, including three based on jurisdiction.

First, the defendants challenged the government’s jurisdiction and the district court’s decision not to allow them an evidentiary hearing on jurisdiction. The Eleventh Circuit held that the defendant’s small motor boat was a “covered vessel” that was subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. because it was a “vessel without nationality.” When the defendants were approached by Coast Guard, none of them identified themselves as a captain, the boat had no signs of nationality, no documents, no flag, or any identifying number. There was no evidence that anyone had authority over the boat or its personnel and no other evidence tying the boat to a nationality.

The Court engaged in a lengthy discussion of maritime law and different sources for defining a “stateless” vessel. The Court also recognized that its decision was at odds with the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Prado, where it held that “failure to volunteer a claim of nationality does not suffice” to create jurisdiction, and if no one identifies themselves as the master of a vessel, the Coast Guard must question the boat’s passengers if they wish to make a claim of nationality.

Moreover, the Court held that the district court did not err or violate the defendants’ confrontation rights by denying them an evidentiary hearing on jurisdiction. The Court held there was no textual support in the Act requiring a hearing. Nor was there evidence that a hearing was necessary in this case. As such, the Court concluded that “a district court does not abuse its discretion when it declines to hold an evidentiary hearing in the absence of a factual dispute or proffer of evidence to be
presented by the requester of the hearing.”

The Court also rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, noting the indictment did not obligate the Government to prove it knew the identity of the controlled substances at issue, and held that the district court did not deprive the defendants of an opportunity to present a complete defense when it limited cross-examination as to the conditions of confinement the defendants experienced when they were taken aboard a US ship.

On appeal from the Southern District of Alabama
Opinion by W. Pryor, joined by Grant and Tjoflat

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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