The detention and search of a vessel on international waters and the Fourth Amendment implications of that stop and search were addressed by the Third Circuit in United States v. Benoit, -- F.3d --, 2013 WL 5273102 (3d Cir. September 19, 2013). Appellant Aundel Benoit was master of the Laurel, a ship boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard based on a tip that the she was being used to smuggle drugs. The tip had a complicated history – the Grenadian government tipped the British Virgin Island authorities, who passed the tip to the DEA, who contacted the Coast Guard. After ordering the vessel to port and then to a boatyard, law enforcement found a substance that tested positive for cocaine, eventually uncovering 250 packages of cocaine weighing 250.9 kilograms. Benoit was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine while on a vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction and aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute. He raised a number of issues on appeal.First, appellant challenged the search of the vessel on the grounds there was no probable cause to search the ship, challenging the reliability of the tip used to board the Laurel. The Third Circuit noted that the Coast Guard has extensive authority to board ships and conduct safety and document inspections, and moreover, prevailing case law requires only “reasonable suspicion” for a more intrusive search. While the Court agreed that the record did not explain the basis for the Grenadian government’s tip, it still found that the Coast Guard was reasonable in relying on the tip. The appellate court noted that the tip came from authorities that the Coast Guard had a working relationship with in fighting drug trafficking and this partnership gave the tip a certain credibility. The tip, combined with Benoit’s inconsistent answers to the Coast Guard about the ship’s voyage, gave rise to reasonable suspicion to support the search.
Next, Benoit challenged the chain of custody of specific evidence obtained from Grenada, under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT). However the Court found no precedent for applying the exclusionary rule to the MLAT. Additionally, the MLAT does not provide any private rights. Moreover, Benoit offered nothing to support the allegation that Grenadian authorities had done anything improper with the evidence.
Third, Benoit challenged the denial of his motion for acquittal. Specifically, he challenged the chain of custody of the evidence. However, the testimony from a DEA agent about delivering the evidence to a DEA lab and handing it over to an evidence technician, combined with the DEA’s forensic chemist’s testimony that when she received the evidence there were no signs of tampering, was sufficient to establish proper chain of custody. He also argued the government failed to introduce the cocaine into evidence at trial. However, the testimony of the chemist about testing the substance and finding it was cocaine made introduction of the cocaine itself unnecessary. Then, Benoit further argued that the government did not show that he knew about the drugs. The Third Circuit found that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence, including the fact that Benoit was the owner of the Laurel and he had made specific alternations to the ship, to support the jury’s finding that the he knew about the drugs. Also, given the relatively small size of the boat in comparison to the large amount of drugs found aboard, made it unlikely that the master of the ship did not know about the drugs.Finally, the statement in the government’s summation that the Coast Guard “saved this country from 250 kilograms” of cocaine was harmless and the trial court's curative instruction to jury was a sufficient remedy. The statement was not grounds for a mistrial.