A U.S. appeals court has upheld the Coast Guard's practice of searching and seizing foreign vessels that are suspected of carrying contraband even when those vessels are in international waters.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond this week affirmed the convictions of five men arrested after the Coast Guard seized a Bahamian vessel carrying six tons of marijuana 200 miles off the North Carolina coast two years ago.

The captain of the vessel had contended that the Coast Guard lacked both the jurisdiction under international law and a proper search warrant to seize his vessel, which was about 200 miles off the U.S. coast.

The appeals court ruled that a federal agency can board a foreign ship to enforce U.S. law under a "special arrangement" with the foreign government to which the ship is registered. According to the court, such an arrangement had been agreed to by the State Department and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

A Coast Guard spokesman in Washington said yesterday such arrangements were common practice, although he could not cite specific numbers or examples. He said U.S. appreals courts in Florida previously had upheld similar convictions in connection with drug seizures off the Florida coast, a popular drug-smuggling site.

The appeals court in Richmond also ruled that a search warrant was not necessary because the ship attempted to steam away from the approaching Coast Guard vehicle. That attempt, said the court, was reason enough to believe the ship "was part of an ongoing conspiracy to smuggle contraband into the country."

Surveillance of the marijuana-smuggling ring began when a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., shrimp boat captain told authorities he had been approached and asked to take part in a smuggling operation.

The informant kept federal authorities advised at every step of the operation and was the government's chief witness against the 18 persons eventually arrested. The ship with marijuana was seized after a high seas chase that ended only after a Coast Guard vessel fired shots off the ship's bow, according to court testimony.