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United States v. Ledesma-Cuesta

October 17, 2003


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court Judge: The Honorable Stewart Dalzell (D.C. No. 01-cr-00374-1)

Before: Barry, Fuentes, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge


Submitted Under Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) June 2, 2003


During passage from Colombia to Philadelphia, about 400 miles north of the Bahamas in the mid-Atlantic, the crew of a merchant ship, the Trojan Star, discovered defendant, Diodayan Ledesma-Cuesta (hereinafter "Ledesma") and approximately four kilos of cocaine aboard their vessel. When the ship arrived in Philadelphia, the crew handed the defendant and the drugs over to United States Customs officials. Ledesma was prosecuted and convicted in the U.S. District Court for, among other things, possession and attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA). On appeal, he claims that the United States lacked jurisdiction over the vessel at the time the cocaine was seized and, therefore, the District Court lacked jurisdiction over his crime under the MDLEA. We disagree. Although the defendant's drug possession occurred in international waters, he planned to possess the drugs and distribute them as the vessel continued into U.S. waters. We thus conclude that the District Court properly exercised jurisdiction. The conviction and sentence will be affirmed.

I. Background

A. Factual

On May 29, 2001, the Trojan Star, a merchant ship carrying bananas, set out from Turbo, Colombia en route to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although the ship was registered in the Bahamas and had "Nassau," the Bahamian capital, inscribed on the stern, the ship had not sailed to the Bahamas during the previous four years. Rather, prior to June 2001, the Trojan Star had been transporting fruit on a bi-weekly basis for approximately four years between Philadelphia and Colombia, S.A., with intervening calls at Port Canaveral, Florida, and Costa Rica.*fn1

In late May 2001, when the Trojan Star arrived at Turbo, Colombia, the ship anchored more than a mile out to sea. None of the crew disembarked at Turbo. Colombian barges loaded with cargo sailed out to the Trojan Star, where Colombian stevedores hoisted crates containing approximately 25 million bananas onto the ship. The bananas were stored on one of four decks located below the main deck of the ship. After leaving Turbo, the Trojan Star sailed to Santa Marta, where additional fruit was loaded onto the ship. On May 30, 2001, the same day the ship arrived in Santa Marta, the Trojan Star set out for Philadelphia, traveling in an essentially northerly straight line.

On or about June 2, 2001, while the ship was in international waters approximately 400 miles and 20 hours by sea northwest of the Bahamas in the mid-Atlantic, Third Officer Jeffree Monton ("Monton"), a crew member of the ship, approached Mast House # 2, which provided access to certain decks where bananas were stored. When Monton opened the door to Mast House # 2, he discovered a stowaway, later identified as defendant Ledesma, standing on a narrow ten-inch wide ledge about ten feet off of the ground. The small area where Ledesma was apprehended was part of the ventilation area of the ship. Monton immediately closed the door and ordered nearby crew members to guard the door, so that he could go inform Captain John Dobson ("Dobson") and Chief Engineer David Peck ("Peck") of the stowaway's presence on board the ship.

After being notified of Ledesma's presence, Peck went to Mast House # 2 and persuaded Ledesma to come down from the ledge. Ledesma was then escorted by crew members to a secured cabin in which he was detained for the remainder of the journey. In the meantime, Peck searched Mast House # 2, and in a gutter almost fourteen feet above the floor, he found a belt containing eight pouches that held more than four kilograms of cocaine, a pocketknife, a lighter, a flashlight with Colombianmanufactured batteries, other various tools, a can of condensed milk, two bottles of water, one block of processed food and four tins of food, and two bags of fruit (these items were all admitted into evidence). According to Chief Engineer Peck and Captain Dobson, the food and equipment were not of the type that would be used by crew members on the Trojan Star, evidence from which the jury could infer that Ledesma brought the items aboard.

Additional searching led crew members to discover the manner in which Ledesma gained access to Mast House # 2: the wire grid across the return air space had been cut, the hatch from one deck to another was slightly open, and an empty water bottle was found on one of the decks on top of the cargo. After the ship arrived in Philadelphia, Captain Dobson observed a series of pallets that had been knocked out to create a passageway to Mast House # 2.

Approximately 25 minutes after Ledesma was removed from Mast House # 2, Captain Dobson interviewed Ledesma who explained that he boarded the ship in Turbo, Colombia during a heavy rain storm. He explained that he was able to enter the ship because he was on one of the barges delivering fruit to the vessel and climbed up a barge mooring rope. He admitted to having worked as a stevedore in the past, although he claimed that he did not receive help from any stevedores in boarding the Trojan Star. He did admit, however, that in 1983, he had stowed aboard a ship from Colombia to Florida but had been deported from the United States in 1997. Captain ...

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