AuthorGoldstein, Andrew



The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) declared the trafficking of controlled substances a significant international concern, and universally condemned it as a threat to the security of the United States. (1) Congress uses the Commerce Clause as its authority to regulate maritime drug trafficking under the MDLEA. (2) Within the

Commerce Clause is the Foreign [*480] Commerce Clause, which grants Congress full authority to regulate activity that has a substantial effect on commerce between the United States and other countries. (3) In United

States v. [*481] Davila-Mendoza, (4) the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Eleventh Circuit) considered whether the MDLEA exceeded Congressional authority pursuant to the Foreign Commerce Clause. (5) Following review, the Court found that despite the Supreme Court's broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause, Congress still exceeded its authority under the clause as the defendants' actions did not have any effect on commerce between the United States and foreign nations. (6)

On June 4th, 2016, Andres Davila-Mendoza and two others (defendants) were on board a vessel in the territorial waters of Jamaica. (7) Suspecting drug trafficking, the United States Coast [*482] Guard boarded and searched the vessel. (8) While conducting a comprehensive search, the Coast Guard discovered 3,500 kilograms of marijuana on the vessel. (9) The Coast Guard subsequently seized the vessel and drugs, and the occupants were arrested and charged in the United States for violation of the MDLEA. (10)

[*483] The defendants moved to dismiss their indictments on the grounds that applying the MDLEA to their case would exceed Congress's power under the Commerce Clause. (11) The district court denied the motion to dismiss, finding that the application of the MDLEA was authorized by the Foreign Commerce Clause. (12) Following the dismissal, the defendants plead guilty after entering into a conditional plea agreement which successfully [*484] preserved their right to appeal their motion's denial. (13)

The Commerce Clause delegates to Congress the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states." (14) This provision is often broken up into two individualized [*485] sections: The Foreign

Commerce Clause and the Interstate Commerce Clause. (15) Through its lengthy history, the Commerce

Clause's impact has been the subject of evolving interpretations by the United States Supreme Court. (16) The clause [*486] has notably been used by Congress to widely regulate the drug industry. (17) Further, the regulations are subject only to rational [*487] basis review, the most lenient standard applied by courts. (18)

The Foreign Commerce Clause has been the subject of far fewer cases than the Interstate Commerce Clause. (19) The majority [*488] of cases involving Foreign Commerce Clause interpretations are negative or dormant, rather than positive and expansive in granting Congress power under the clause. (20) However, the Supreme Court has clarified that the Foreign Commerce Clause grants Congress the "exclusive and plenary" power to regulate commerce with foreign nations. (21) Additionally, in the 2016 trafficking [*489] case United States v. Baston, the Eleventh Circuit upheld Congress's power to regulate extraterritorially pursuant to the Foreign Commerce Clause. (22)

Beginning in the 1970's, the United States government placed a heavy emphasis on curbing the use of illegal drugs in the country. (23) As the focus narrowed in on illegal drug trafficking, [*490] Congress began considering a series of bills that eventually were culminated into the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. (24) Included in the

Anti-Drug Abuse Act is the MDLEA, which grants law enforcement agencies the authority to pursue illegal drug trafficking occurring through maritime transport, even if it extends past the territories of the United States.

(25) The Commerce Clause is [*491] viewed as the authority for the MDLEA, with Congress arguing that illegal drug trafficking has a substantial effect on interstate commerce and commerce between the United States and foreign nations. (26) While some recreational drugs such as marijuana are now being viewed differently in some states, statistics show drug trafficking still poses a concern to the United States as a whole. (27)

In United States v. Davila-Mendoza, the Eleventh Circuit considered whether the MDLEA exceeded congressional authority pursuant to the Foreign Commerce Clause. (28) The Court [*492] began with a review of the relevant precedent cases, both decided by the Eleventh Circuit and other federal appellate courts. (29) While the Court openly acknowledged that the Commerce [*493] Clause is to be read broadly as a whole, it emphasized that even a broad reading has its limits. (30) Furthermore, the related Eleventh Circuit precedent,

Baston, differed from Davila-Mendoza both factually, with defendant Baston having far closer ties to the United States than the Davila-Mendoza defendants, and statutorily, as the statute relied upon in Baston demonstrated far stronger evidence of economic impact on foreign commerce. (31) With this in mind, the Court carefully distinguished [*494] the case from Baston, explained the disparities in the specific facts and noted that there was simply no economic impact of the drug trafficking, aggregate or otherwise, ultimately making the MDLEA unconstitutional as applied to the defendants. (32)

The Eleventh Circuit correctly determined that this application of the MDLEA exceeded congressional authority pursuant to the Foreign Commerce Clause. (33) This important decision was reached after the Court conducted a comprehensive review of the background and history of the Commerce Clause. (34) The [*495] Foreign

Commerce Clause can essentially operate as a "unilateral basis of exterritorial legislative power," but still must be viewed in two different contexts: (1) inward-looking, regulating within the United States, and (2) outward-looking, regulating outside the United States. (35) The Eleventh Circuit properly recognized [*496] that Congress exercised its outward-looking power and reviewed cautiously, understanding concerns surrounding regulations that affected foreign policy and foreign relations. (36)

On the path to finding the MDLEA unconstitutional, the Eleventh Circuit also conducted a necessary review of the MDLEA's background and intended effects. (37) The purpose of the MDLEA is to ultimately stop all illegal maritime drug trafficking. (38) In striving to achieve this, the MDLEA permits maritime [*497] law enforcement to essentially have free will in their actions. (39) Most importantly, the MDLEA fails to clearly highlight the economic impact of illegal drug trafficking on commerce between the United States and foreign nations. (40)

[*498] Once the Eleventh Circuit highlighted the key elements and concerns with the Foreign Commerce Clause and the MDLEA, it transitioned to distinguishing from its most pressing and correctly decided precedent case,

Baston. (41) In Baston, the Eleventh Circuit based its holding on specific congressional findings that demonstrated the economic impact of sex trafficking on U.S. commerce with foreign nations. (42) Similar findings [*499] are notably absent in the MDLEA, and despite being viewed under the more lenient rational basis test, there is simply no economic impact, even viewed in the aggregate, that can reach the threshold of substantial impact on commerce between the United States and foreign nations. (43) Further, in Baston, the defendant committed sex trafficking violations in the United States and essentially held himself out as a U.S. citizen, whereas in the present case, there is no connection between the defendants nor their contraband and the United States. 44

[*500] In United States v. Davila-Mendoza, the Eleventh Circuit had to determine whether the MDLEA was unconstitutional. The Court reached a proper decision by reviewing the Foreign Commerce Clause, which the

MDLEA relied on for authority, as well as the history of the MDLEA itself, and the relevant precedent cases. Without requiring any legitimate connection to the United States, and with no economic impact cited, the MDLEA's authorization of extraterritorial jurisdiction to maritime law enforcement is far too expansive, and the Eleventh Circuit was correct in striking down the statute as unconstitutional. Therefore, if Congress wants to regulate maritime drug trafficking, it must impose stricter restrictions on law enforcement in order to remain within its constitutionally delegated.

Suffolk Transnational Law Review

Copyright (c) 2021 Suffolk University

End of Document

Summer, 2021


44 Suffolk Transnat'l L. Rev. 479 *

Length: 28978 words

Author: Andrew Goldstein

(1) See 46 U.S.C. [section] 70501-70508 (explaining statute's purpose). Congressional findings indicated that the trafficking of controlled substances is an international problem and must be condemned by all countries. Id. at [section] 70501. This type of trafficking is a serious threat to the security of the United States. Id. Controlled substance trafficking can easily lead to international crime, such as terrorist attacks. Id. Without regulation of this problem, the safety of maritime travel will be seriously compromised. Id. See also Mary B. Neumayr, Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act: An Analysis, 11

HASTINGS INT'L & COMP. L. REV. 487, 489-500 (1988) (explaining bills and provisions of Anti-Drug Abuse Act). Starting in the 1970s, the United States focused their intentions on curbing the stream of illegal drugs entering the country. Id. at 487, 489-90. Local law enforcement, the United States Customs Service, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, and the United States Coast Guard have all been tasked with investigating illegal drug flows and making the necessary arrests to try and deter others from committing the same crimes...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT