By Basil Katz
Nov 6 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled
that the U.S. government had exceeded its powers by prosecuting
four suspected drug traffickers arrested in the territorial
waters of Panama.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in Atlanta reversed the convictions of the four men,
saying the United States could not assert jurisdiction over the
drug trafficking offenses in the case.
The question at issue, which the appeals court said it was
taking up for the first time, was whether a clause of the U.S.
Constitution allows for U.S. prosecution of drug trafficking
offenses in the territorial waters of another country.
In finding that it did not, the appeals court said the
clause, which gives the U.S. Congress the power to go after
"Offences against the Law of Nations," extended only to crimes
recognized as such by international law.
Drug trafficking was not a violation of international law
when the United States was founded in the 18th century, the
opinion said, "and drug trafficking is not a violation of
customary international law today." The opinion was written by
Circuit judge William Pryor and joined by Circuit judge Rosemary
Barkett. District Judge Timothy Batten of Atlanta federal court,
sitting by designation, also joined in the opinion.
Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in
Miami, declined comment. Tracy Dreispul, a defense attorney on
the appeal, had no immediate comment.
Panamanian authorities arrested the four defendants in 2010
after the U.S. Coast Guard alerted the Panamanian Navy that it
had spotted a fishing boat operating with no lights and without
After cocaine was discovered on the boat, which was in
Panamanian waters, the defendants were arrested. Panama agreed
to let the United States prosecute the four, the opinion said.
The defendants pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge
and were sentenced to prison.
Federal prosecutors in Miami argued that under the Maritime
Drug Law Enforcement Act, the United States could go after
suspected drug traffickers using boats in international waters
and that Panama had authorized the prosecution.
The case is USA v. Yimmi Bellaizac-Hurtado et al., U.S.
Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, Nos. 11-14049, 11-14227,
For the government: Jonathan Colan, Assistant U.S. Attorney
for the Southern District of Florida.
For the defendants: Tracy Dreispul, Assistant Federal Public
Defender in Miami.
(Additional reporting by Terry Baynes)
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