By Basil Katz
(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."
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 a flag.
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, 11-14310, 11-14311).
(Additional reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Todd Eastham)