Special Maritime Criminal Jurisdiction

Over the recent years, there has been increasing attention paid to criminal acts, including sexual assaults, that occur onboard the passenger cruise ships. Special attention was directed to the cruise ship industry after the disappearance of George Smith during his honeymoon cruise. The initial investigations suggested foul play as the cause of his disappearance, prompting an ongoing FBI investigation into the matter. The George Smith case, in which our firm represented his parents in an action against the cruise line company, involved his disappearance while the ship was in international waters. This led to some complex issues of which authorities had jurisdiction over the investigation. Initially, the Turkish authorities investigated the incident. They did a very poor job. There was a very quick and incomplete investigation.

The cruise ship company did their own internal investigation, including flying attorneys from Miami, Florida to the ship immediately to interview passengers and crewmembers. The cruise line delayed in reporting the incident to the FBI, which resulted in a delayed reaction by the FBI. Of course by the time the FBI got involved, the investigation became very difficult because critical evidence had been lost.

There were many allegations of improper handling of important evidence, and an improper investigation and cover up about the incident.

However, the incident did highlight the jurisdictional complexities involved in investigations of criminal activity that occur onboard cruise ships which travel through international waters, especially when carrying United States passengers.
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Since the George Smith case, there have been Congressional hearings held which have addressed the complexities of jurisdiction, as well as the safety procedures onboard cruise ships. I was invited to speak as a maritime expert at Congressional hearings which addressed these issues. This resulted in addition, legislation which creating reporting requirements for certain crimes that occur aboard a ship.

I have seen an increased movement to have states that have ports frequently visited by cruise ship companies enact legislation which grants state authorities jurisdiction over crimes that occur onboard a cruise ship under certain circumstances. Florida has a statute, Florida Statute 910.006, titled State Special Maritime Criminal Jurisdiction. In the statute, the legislature states Florida is a major center for international travel and trade by sea and that Florida has an interest in ensuring the protection of those travelling to or from Florida by sea. Accordingly, legislation has been enacted to give special maritime criminal jurisdiction to the state of Florida for certain acts or omissions aboard a ship that occur outside the state of Florida. Those special circumstances where criminal acts aboard a cruise ship that occur outside the state of Florida will provide jurisdiction to the authorities in Florida are as follows:

a. There is a suspect on board the ship who is a citizen or resident of this state or a state which consents to the jurisdiction of this state.

b. The master of the ship or an official of the flag state commits a suspect on board the ship to the custody of a law enforcement officer acting under the authority of this state.

c. The state in whose territory the act or omission occurred requests the exercise of jurisdiction by this state.

d. The act or omission occurs during a voyage on which over half of the revenue passengers on board the ship originally embarked and plan to finally disembark in this state, without his or her official duties.

e. The victim is a Florida law enforcement officer on board the ship on connection with his or her official duties.

f. The act or omission is one of violence, detention, or depredation generally recognized as criminal, and the victim is a resident of this state.

g. The act or omission causes or constitutes an attempt or conspiracy to cause a substantial effect in this state that is an element of the offense charged.

h. The act or omission is one with respect to which all states may exercise criminal jurisdiction under international law or treaty.

While it is good there is special maritime criminal jurisdiction granted to the state, in addition to the federal authorities, as well as the countries where the vessels are registered, the jurisdictional issues remain very complex.

Many times we find state authorities do not know when to exercise their jurisdiction. There is also the problem of duplication with other authorities, or conflicting with other authorities. Our experience has been that many times a criminal activity aboard a cruise ship goes unprosecuted because none of the authorities are motivated to get involved, or because one or more believe another authority is taking care of the situation. Most of the time a United States passenger does not know who to inform of the criminal act in order to prompt the proper authority to investigate.

In the George Smith case, there was a lot of pressure, due to the public recognition of the incident, as well as the relentless efforts of the family of George Smith, for the FBI to get actively involved in the investigation. The family of George Smith went to their Congressman in Connecticut, who was very instrumental in pushing for an active investigation, as well as setting up the Congressional hearings which ultimately led to the passage of The Cruise Vessel and Safety Act enacted by President Obama.

The Special Maritime Criminal Jurisdiction statue in Florida is a positive piece of legislation which should assist in making sure that some authority gets actively involved in an investigation of a crime that occurs on a cruise ship based in Florida. There are efforts to push similar legislation forward in other states, including California.

I have provided recommendations that any legislation should include requirements on the part of the cruise ship companies to inform passengers of the different authorities that can be contacted following a criminal act, including sexual assaults, so that the passengers are more fully informed. Increased knowledge on the part of the passengers, as well as increased reporting requirements on the part of the cruise ship companies will hopefully lead to more complete investigations into serious crimes, and hopefully an increase in the number of prosecutions for the commission of these serious crimes. It is very rare that we hear of anyone prosecuted and convicted for a serious criminal act, including a sexual assault, aboard a cruise ship, although have been a significant number of such reported incidents.

Our firm continues to represent passengers who have been the victims of a serious criminal activity aboard a cruise ship, including sexual assaults.

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