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Blood in the Water: Why the First Step Act of 2018 Fails Those Sentenced Under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act


Lauren R. Robertson


December 23, 2021

For some, the open ocean is prison. The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) prohibits individuals from knowingly or intentionally distributing a controlled substance or possessing it with the intent to distribute. Empowered by the MDLEA, the United States Coast Guard arrests and detains foreign nationals hundreds of miles outside of U.S. territorial waters. After months shackled to Coast Guard ships, these individuals face the harsh reality of American mandatory minimum drug sentencing, judged by the kilograms of drugs on their vessels. But the MDLEA conflates kilograms with culpability. More often than not, those sentenced are fishermen-turned-smugglers due to financial desperation or coercionnot the kingpins the statute aspired to target.

In the First Step Act of 2018, Congress attempted to grant sentencing reprieve to these defendants by extending the safety valve provision to the MDLEA. When it works, the safety valve provision enables judges to sentence below mandatory minimum penalties. Unfortunately, the unique qualities of international drug couriers preclude them from receiving such relief. Until the legislature and presiding judges recognize this, MDLEA defendants will continue to receive irrationally long prison sentences. This Note argues that including the MDLEA as an offense under the safety valve provision fails to mitigate the MDLEA’s harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

This Note begins in Part I by discussing the MDLEA’s history as well as how the Coast Guard arrests these defendants. It then explains how the statutory mandatory minimum sentence interacts with the Sentencing Guidelines and highlights the flaws of this system. Part II addresses the safety valve provision as well as the previous circuit split regarding its applicability to the MDLEA. Part III introduces the First Step Act of 2018 and describes how it resolved that split. Part III then evaluates the effectiveness of the First Step Act’s change and provides a recent case example. Finally, Part IV concentrates on how defendants sentenced under the MDLEA are uniquely incapable of sentencing reprieve. It explores general improvements for the safety valve as well as specific changes for the MDLEA. This Note ultimately argues that Congress must amend the MDLEA’s sentencing regime.


Lauren R. Robertson, Blood in the Water: Why the First Step Act of 2018 Fails Those Sentenced Under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, 78 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1613 (2021).