Piracy off the Coast of California?

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, a Boatswain Mate onboard the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut, died early in the morning of Dec. 2, 2012 from injuries sustained during law enforcement operations near Santa Cruz Island, Calif. Source: US Coast Guard

Last week a member of the U.S. Coast Guard died when a vessel smuggling narcotics from Mexico hit the coast guard boat containing a boarding team, including the victim. The two Mexican nationals operating the smuggling vessel made their initial appearance in U.S. court last week. It appears that the collision occurred within U.S. territorial waters as it was “near Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara.” The two could be charged with murder of a U.S. government officer 18 USC 1114 for which the death penalty is an available sentence. However, it has been reported that “drug and human trafficking off the [California] coast has grown into an elaborate, highly lucrative and increasingly dangerous operation, as smugglers venture farther out to sea and farther north along the coast in search of safe places to deliver their cargo undetected.” If such a collision were to occur on the High Seas, the Accused could also be charged with piracy for it would constitute an illegal act of violence for private ends between two vessels (UNCLOS Art. 101). It might also create conflicting jurisdictional claims between Mexico and the U.S. if the U.S. were intent on imposing the death penalty. Mexico could claim jurisdiction over the crime based on the perpetrators’ nationality whereas the U.S. could claim jurisdiction based on the victims’ nationality. For a similar jurisdictional conflict see the case of the Enrica Lexie. Conflicts over the imposition of the death penalty against Mexican nationals in the U.S. have been a point of contention between the two states, culminating in the case of Medellin v. Texas at the International Court of Justice which continues to reverberate in U.S. courts. That said, the growth of maritime drug smuggling off the coast of California, perhaps on the High Seas, could have worrying implications for interstate relations between the U.S. and Mexico.

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