Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

First Page



The use of aircraft and large, seagoing vessels for smuggling marijuana and other illicit drugs has created a burgeoning problem for United States efforts to control its borders. The use of foreign flag ships as "mother ships" is particularly troublesome. This practice involves foreign flag vessels, often containing several tons of marijuana, that hover in international waters just outside the United States territorial sea. The marijuana is transferred from these mother ships to smaller vessels which then cross into United States waters and distribute the contraband at prearranged points along the coast. The immunities provided by international law for foreign mother ships that remain in international waters present barriers to stopping this practice. As will be discussed below, United States law enforcement officials may only board and search these vessels under a limited number of circumstances. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) do board these vessels, seize marijuana, and successfully prosecute crew members. The Coast Guard's usual procedures to control drug traffic begin when vessels likely to be carrying contraband are located by spotter planes, Coast Guard cutters, or through information supplied by informants. Then the vessel is put under surveillance by a Coast Guard cutter to prevent it from unloading its cargo. Next, the Coast Guard attempts to find a way to overcome the international law immunities protecting the vessel. If the Coast Guard succeeds, the vessel is boarded and searched. If marijuana is found during the search, the ship is seized and the crew arrested.

This note examines whether the Coast Guard has been successful in overcoming the immunity of the foreign flag vessels. In recent cases the government used several arguments to justify the Coast Guard's actions. In each of the cases, the defendant contended that the Coast Guard's interference with the foreign vessel was a clear violation of international law. Generally, however, the courts upheld the government's arguments. The discussion below will examine and evaluate these decisions.