United States: Vessel Forfeiture Issues For Carriers Involved In U.S. Government Drug Trafficking Or Other Criminal Investigations

On June 17, 2019, at the Port of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), U.S. federal law enforcement seized over 16 tons of cocaine from containers onboard the MSC GAYANE container ship. The estimated value of this cocaine is approximately $1 billion dollars. To date, six crew members of the MSC GAYANE have been arrested and charged with violations of the federal maritime drug trafficking laws. This was the second major drug seizure on a container ship by the U.S. government at the Port of Philadelphia in recent months, and reportedly the largest such seizure in the Port's history.

Similarly, in March of this year, over 3,000 pounds (1.5 tons) of cocaine were seized on a container ship at the Port of New York/New Jersey which was reportedly the largest cocaine seizure in that port in approximately 25 years.

In a press conference regarding the June 17th cocaine seizure, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, announced that the government would, "employ the fullest measure of the law possible" in the prosecution of this case including, the possible forfeiture of the ship itself.

As you know, the forfeiture of a cargo ship such as the MSC GAYANE, would have significant financial implications for its owners and owners of cargo aboard the ships.

Oftentimes, illegal drugs are smuggled onto container ships in a clandestine manner unbeknownst to the masters of the ship, and certainly unknown to ship owners. We would like to shed some insight to our clients regarding the relevant perspective of the government involved in cases like this – namely the possible exposure of your vessels to forfeiture by the U.S. government should they be found to contain large quantities of illegal narcotics or in violation of other U.S. laws.

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act ("MDLEA"), makes it illegal to possess with the intent to distribute illegal narcotics on a vessel covered under the Act. Any vessel, regardless of where it is registered, is subject to the U.S. drug laws once the vessel is in the territorial waters of the United States.

While there is no suggestion that the MSC GAYANE owners knew of the illegal drugs that had been smuggled aboard the ship, when a cargo ship is found to contain large quantities of illegal drugs, U.S. law deems that vessel to have been used to facilitate this crime, therefore, making it subject to possible forfeiture by the U.S. government.

The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention & Control Act provides that, "all conveyances, including aircraft, vehicles, or vessels, which are used, or intended for use, to transport, or in any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession or concealment...." of controlled substances (illegal narcotics), are subject to forfeiture to the United States and may be seized by the Attorney General. The vessel could be forfeited civilly or criminally through the judicial process. The vessel could then be sold and the proceeds used to pay for expenses associated with the legal proceedings.

Is an "innocent owner" defense available? Possibly. If the government is seeking civil forfeiture of the vessel, the law states that, "an innocent owner's interest in property shall not be forfeited under any civil forfeiture statute." The claimant has the burden to prove that they are indeed an "innocent owner" and had no knowledge of the illegal conduct on the vessel or that upon learning of the illegal conduct, the "innocent owner" did everything reasonably possible under the circumstances to stop the illegal conduct. Thus, this defense may not work if the Court determines the owner to be "willfully blind" to the illegal conduct occurring on the ship.

The circumstances are different in a criminal case. Criminal forfeiture is possible when the government files charges against one or more persons (certain individuals or the company itself) involved in the criminal activity. When charges are filed, usually in an indictment, a Notice of Forfeiture is attached to the charging document. The issue of actual forfeiture only becomes viable after a criminal conviction (by way of guilty plea or jury verdict). Forfeiture becomes part of a defendant's sentence, thus only the defendant's interest in the property can be forfeited. After a conviction, the government has the burden to prove the connection between the offense and the property to be forfeited. If the government is successful, then an ancillary hearing would be conducted to address the interests of third parties in the property in order to determine what, if any, portion of the property is forfeitable.

While the outcome of a civil or criminal forfeiture action by the U.S. government may ultimately be favorable for ship owners, owners should still keep in mind that their vessel may be seized and held by the government until the phases of the processes are complete.

Notably, on May 9, 2019, for the first time, the U.S. government actually seized a North Korean shipping vessel, the WISE HONEST, for violating U.S. law and international sanctions. We will be following the development of this case as it proceeds through the federal courts in New York as well.

To read more about the current MSC GAYANE and the WISE HONEST cases, see the links below. If your company finds itself in a similarly unfortunate situation to the owners of the MSC GAYANE and need guidance on the issue of forfeiture or any other issues, the attorneys at Montgomery McCracken are here to advise you and help you through the legal process should one of your vessels become involved in a criminal investigation in the United States.




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