ACLU Sues Coast Guard Over Allegedly ‘Unlawful’ Detention Of Jamaican Fishermen

“What you had, in effect, was a kidnapping,” said one lawyer for the crew who were held for weeks at sea.

The U.S. Coast guard detained five Jamaican fishermen for 32 days, shackling them for long periods outdoors on ship decks in the Caribbean Sea even during a hurricane, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

The ACLU lawsuit is seeking damages for four of the five fishermen based on the physical and psychological harm they allegedly endured while in Coast Guard custody.

On Sept. 14, 2017, the Coast Guard stopped their boat. Officers searched the crewmembers and the boat for marijuana for three to four hours, the lawsuit said, but ultimately found no trace.

The Coast Guard then set the boat on fire, stripped the fishermen naked and gave them thin coveralls, chained them to the decks of the U.S. ship, and denied them basic amenities like shelter and medical care for injuries, according to the complaint.

“We were treated like we are garbage,” crewmember Robert Dexter Weir said in a video released by the ACLU.

The Coast Guard was operating under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, which allows them to “stop, search and seize contraband or illicit drugs on the high seas,” according to Steven Watt, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. But the Coast Guard overstepped its authority, Watt alleged, by detaining the fishermen indefinitely without the guarantees of due process or even a phone call to loved ones.

Instead of bringing the men before a magistrate judge on the ship’s first stop, Guantanamo Bay, the Coast Guard took them on a “tour of the Caribbean,” Watt told HuffPost. The fishermen were transferred to three more ships before reaching Miami, their final destination, more than a month later.

“Their families thought them dead,” Watt told HuffPost in a phone interview. “What you had, in effect, was a kidnapping.”

Coast Guard officers board a small fishing boat accused of smuggling cocaine in the Pacific Ocean in February 2017.
Coast Guard officers board a small fishing boat accused of smuggling cocaine in the Pacific Ocean in February 2017.

The Coast Guard has disputed some of those claims and said all suspects were cared for while in custody. A Coast Guard spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, said in a statement that authorities had witnessed the Jamaican crew jettisoning multiple packages of marijuana, approximately 600 pounds of which they were later able to recover.

As for the men’s detention aboard ship, McBride said the Coast Guard asked the Jamaican government for permission to prosecute the fishermen, detaining them while authorities waited for a response. In the end, he said the U.S. received that consent and the men were taken to Miami. He said they were “transferred multiple times” between ships due to “critical mission tasking and dynamic operational scheduling” during Hurricane Maria.

“The Coast Guard complies with both international and U.S. domestic law and works closely with our Department of Justice and Department of State colleagues to ensure that compliance,” McBride said. “All suspects are cared for humanely while preserving the security of both the crew and suspects.”

The agency said it could not comment on the litigation itself, having not yet received the complaint.

The Coast Guard’s claims about drug trafficking by the crew are “baseless,” Watt said in an email. “Our clients have repeatedly denied such baseless claims, and even the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting their case acknowledged that it would, in fact, have taken ‘a miracle’ to prove to a jury that there were ever any drugs on the men’s boat,” he wrote. Watts said the Coast Guard lacked probable cause to arrest the fishermen.

Ultimately, the men were charged with providing false information to the Coast Guard about their destination, and after attorneys recommended they plead guilty so they could get home sooner, they did. The fishermen were imprisoned for 10 months. Following the completion of their sentence, they were detained for two more months, beginning on Aug. 30, 2018, in a federal immigration center.

The ACLU filed the suit with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP on behalf of Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson and David Roderick Williams. The Atlantic first reported on the lawsuit.

Watt said the fishermen’s experience was “not unusual at all.”

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Southern Command commenced a multinational operation aimed at fighting drug trafficking, called Operation Martillo. It targeted maritime smuggling routes between South and Central America in particular, according to a New York Times article from 2017, when the ACLU’s clients were stopped.

In 2016, the Coast Guard detained 585 alleged smugglers, most of whom were captured in international waters. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly, who was the head of the Southern Command at the time, oversaw this operation. Last year, the Coast Guard detained more than 600 alleged drug smugglers and removed 200 metric tons of cocaine, according to The Atlantic.

A former Coast Guard lawyer told The New York Times in 2017 that the ships that carried the detainees were like “floating Guantánamos.”

The Coast Guard has justified this form of detention by arguing that the suspects are not technically under arrest so they don’t have the same rights as someone arrested under federal criminal procedure rules, including the right to see a judge as soon as possible.

Watt called this position “flat plain wrong.” Suspects are taken into custody on a U.S.-flag ship, meaning U.S. law applies, he said.

According to Watt, the ACLU suit inherently challenges the policies of the Coast Guard in detaining alleged drug smugglers. “In order for them to show that they are acting pursuant to lawful policies, they’re going to have to show what those policies are,” he said.

“There’s no human rights out there,” Patterson said in the video. “They treat you like animals. And I want the world to see what’s really going on.”