Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hernandez: Coast Guard Certification Conclusive Proof of MDLEA Jurisdiction

In United States v. Hernandez, et al., No. 15-10810 (July 28, 2017) (Rogers (6th Cir.), Hull, Marcus), the Court upheld the defendants' drug-trafficking convictions under the MDLEA.

The primary issue on appeal was whether the vessel was subject to the jurisdiction of the United States as a vessel without nationality.  The Court concluded that it was because the Coast Guard's certification that Guatemala neither confirmed nor denied its registration was conclusive proof satisfying the jurisdictional requirement.  The Court found that the defendants could not look behind or challenge that certification, even where, as here, it turned out that the vessel was in fact registered in Guatemala, and the defendants claimed that the Coast Guard possessed information that would have easily led it to reach that conclusion.  The Court, in a lengthy discussion, reached that conclusion as a matter of both statutory construction and international law.  The Coast Guard's certification is conclusive proof, even if inaccurate or the product of bad faith, because the statute delegates such matters to the diplomatic branches.  Relatedly, the Court rejected the argument that, by the time Guatemala neither confirmed nor denied registration (making the vessel subject to US jurisdiction), the defendants were no longer committing the drug offense.

The Court also rejected several additional arguments by the defendants.  It found the evidence sufficient to support the convictions.  It found no reversible prosecutorial misconduct because, even though some remarks made during closing did "not reflect the high standards to which the Government should hold itself," they were not sufficiently prejudicial.  The Court found that the accidental destruction of the vessel and other items did not violate Brady or Arizona v. Youngblood.  The Court briefly rejected various hearsay-related arguments.  And the Court upheld sentencing enhancements for both acting as a captain, where the defendant identified himself as such and held a captain's license, and for recklessly creating a substantial risk of death, where the defendant engaged in aggressive maneuvering of the vessel.