What's at Stake
Does Congress have authority to criminalize conduct on the high seas by a foreign national on a foreign boat having no connection with the United States
Petitioners, four Jamaican nationals, challenge their convictions and sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 2237(a)(2)(B), which makes it a felony for anyone while on the high seas to make false statements to a law enforcement officer about their vessel’s destination. Petitioners were traveling the high seas between Jamaica and Haiti aboard a Jamaican-flagged vessel. They were not on their way to or from the United States and their conduct had no effect in or on the United States. U.S. Coast Guard officials nonetheless forcibly stopped and boarded their vessel at gunpoint. Petitioners were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2237(a)(2)(B), for saying they were destined for Jamaica, not Haiti.
Our petition argues that Congress has no extraterritorial authority to criminalize conduct by foreign nationals, on foreign boats, on the high seas, that has no effect on the United States. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Congress can do so, and that there is literally no limit to its power to regulate any conduct anywhere on the high seas, irrespective of whether the individual, the boat, or the conduct has any connection to the United States. The petition notes that John Marshall, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson all agreed that absent some nexus to the United States, no such roving authority to police the high seas existed.