If the U.S. Coast Guard or another law enforcement agency arrested you and charged you with drug trafficking while you were out in the ocean, you may wonder about the agency’s jurisdictional rights. While the United States does have jurisdictional rights out in the ocean, the question is, where do they end?
According to the Office of Coast Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, the United States maritime limits and boundaries begin at the official U.S. baseline. The baseline is the low-water line that travels the length of the coast. The NOAA marked these lines on the nautical charts and in accordance with the articles of the Law of the Sea. The charts depict up to three zones for each country: The territorial sea, the contiguous zone and the exclusive economic zone. It also shows boundaries the U.S. shares with other countries thanks to treaties.
The territorial sea
The territorial sea zone affords the United States the most rights in terms of prosecuting violators of the law. In territorial seas, the U.S. has exclusive sovereignty over any airspace above or seabed below the waters. This sovereignty begins at the low-water line and extends 12 nautical miles out into the open waters. If a law enforcement agency picks you up anywhere in this territory, you are subject to federal and/or state laws and customs.
The contiguous zone
The contiguous zone also affords U.S. law enforcement agencies ample rights. This zone extends 24 nautical miles from the low-water baseline. In this zone, the U.S. can take whatever measures necessary to prevent the violation of its fiscal, immigration, customs, sanitary or cultural heritage laws and regulations. As with the territorial seas, if an agent of the law stops you in this zone, you are subject to federal and state laws and customs.
The exclusive economic zone
The EEZ extends 200 nautical miles out from the territorial sea baseline and overlaps the contiguous zone. Within the EEZ, the U.S. has rights solely for the purpose of conserving, exploring, managing or exploiting natural resources. When it comes to legal violations in the portion of this zone that falls outside of the contiguous zone, the U.S. has very few rights.