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‘High Seas’ includes the exclusive economic zones of countries?

In several cases this year foreign crew members arrested on charges of drug smuggling after their boats were intercepted by USCG in EEZ of foreign countries (Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Dominican Republic) were challenging the jurisdiction of US in these waters. America’s Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) is limited to offenses occurring on the high seas, so it came down to the definition of the term 'high seas'.

Although UNCLOS has separate provisions talking about EEZ and High Seas, it does not clarify whether EEZ is a part of the high seas or not. It then comes down to the interpretation of UNCLOS by individual states and their domestic laws.

In some cases the Courts referred to previous precedents while others also relied on 33 CFR § 2.32(c) to hold that EEZ is merely part of the high seas and if a vessel was outside the twelve mile territorial boundary, then the vessel was in international waters or high seas for purposes of criminal enforcement jurisdiction.

Another aspect in all these cases was that the nationality of each of the vessels was in question. The respective Flags could not confirm whether the vessels were registered with them. For domestic law to apply to foreign nationals on non-US vessels on high seas, the vessel must be without nationality. All these vessels were deemed stateless by the courts thus paving the way for US to apply its jurisdiction.

Boat intercepted in EEZ of Costa Rica: US v. Walters (

Boat intercepted in EEZ of Dominican Republic: US v. Mendez ( and US v. Berroa (


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