In United States v. Nunez et al., No. 19-14181 (June 17, 2021) (William Pryor, Grant, Tjoflat), the Court affirmed the defendants’ MDLEA convictions.
First, the Court held that there was jurisdiction because the vessel was one without nationality. The “vessel without nationality” definitions in the statute were not exclusive, and the vessel here lacked nationality because it carried no documents, flew no flag, had no name or numbers, and nobody on the vessel claimed that it had nationality or registry. In addition, nobody claimed to be the master or captain, and the smugglers all played equal roles. The Court rejected the argument that this meant they were all in charge or took turns at being in charge. The Court also rejected a Second Circuit decision, which concluded that jurisdiction was lacking when three men, none of whom claimed to be the master, were not asked for a claim of nationality or registry.
Second, the Court held that the district court was not required to hold an evidentiary hearing on jurisdiction under either the Confrontation Clause or the statute. In this case, the smugglers did not identify any facts that they sought to contest or additional facts they sought to introduce. Nor did the they suffer any prejudice by the district court waiting until the end of the trial to make a final determination about jurisdiction.
Third, sufficient evidence supported the convictions. The Court clarified that its decision in Narog, which required the government to prove knowledge of the particular controlled substance alleged in the indictment, was contrary to earlier precedents and therefore is not good law. The identity of the controlled substance is not an element of the offense.
Finally, the Court rejected the argument that the district court deprived the defendants of their right to a complete defense when it prohibited them from cross-examining the government’s witnesses about more than the basic details of their 10-day outdoor confinement on the vessel. That evidence was cumulative to evidence already admitted, and any error was harmless.