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The Coast Guard Destroyed Their Livelihoods. Will the Supreme Court Hear Their Case?

An overhead photograph of the ocean, dotted with boats.
Four Jamaican fisherman were stopped by the Coast Guard. Their next year was a nightmare.
An overhead photograph of the ocean, dotted with boats.
Steven M. Watt,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
David Cole,
ACLU Legal Director
Aaron Madrid Aksoz,
Media and Engagement Strategist,
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March 23, 2022

Robert Weir and his crew were on an overnight fishing trip to the Morant Cays in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Jamaica in September 2017 when a storm hit and blew their boat off course. Hopelessly lost and trying to find their way home, Robert steered the boat toward Haiti, thinking it was Jamaica. As he did so, they were approached by a vessel flying a U.S. flag.

Little did they know then that their lives were about to be turned upside down, and that it would be nearly a year before they saw their homes and families again.

As the U.S.-flagged boat approached, the men on board identified themselves as U.S. Coast Guard officers and forcibly stopped the fishermen’s boat at gunpoint. One of the officers asked Robert what he and his crew were doing, and after telling the officer that they were on a fishing trip but were lost and trying to find their way home, two of the officers boarded the boat and searched it and the men for drugs. They didn’t find any. Yet, instead of helping the crew find their way home, the Coast Guard detained the men, transferred them to a Coast Guard cutter that had pulled up alongside, and later, as the four men sat chained to the deck of that cutter, destroyed their fishing boat.

Robert and his crew then spent more than a month chained to the decks of the Coast Guard cutter and three other boats, as the Coast Guard sailed the Caribbean Sea, making stops at Guantánamo Bay, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. Chained to the open decks, the men were exposed to the elements, even as the second cutter set sail as Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean. They were denied access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food, and medical care. The men’s skin burned and blistered in the sun, and they were drenched and chilled by rain and sea water.

Back in Jamaica, some of the men’s families presumed they had died at sea when they didn’t return as scheduled. Knowing that their families would be concerned for their safety, the men pleaded repeatedly with their Coast Guard captors to allow them to make calls to their families, but were refused each time they did so.

The Coast Guard detained the men at sea for more than 30 days, without charging them with a crime, before delivering them to the custody of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami.

There, the United States initially charged the men with drug trafficking offenses, but ultimately abandoned those charges, admitting to the federal district court during the men’s sentencing hearing that it “would have required a miracle” to prove those charges. Instead, the government charged the men with violating a little-known U.S. law, which makes it a crime to lie to a federal officer about one’s destination on the high seas. Because the men had told the Coast Guard that they’d planned to fish in Jamaican waters, but were in fact heading to Haiti (because they were lost), the men each pleaded guilty. The federal court sentenced them each to 10 months’ imprisonment.

After serving their sentences, the Department of Homeland Security held the men in immigration detention for two more months before removing them from the United States to Jamaica, almost a year after their encounter with the Coast Guard in the Caribbean. The men returned home to their families in August 2018, their livelihoods destroyed and financially ruined.

Now, more than four years after the men embarked on their fishing trip, we’re asking the Supreme Court to hear their case to ensure that the United States will be held accountable for violating their rights — and to ensure others don’t meet similar fates.

A photo Robert Weir and David Williams

Robert Weir and David Williams

The Coast Guard stopped Robert and his crew as part of a drug interdiction program under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, a relic of the failed war on drugs that directs the Coast Guard to prosecute people suspected of drug smuggling in international waters, even if the vessel flies a foreign flag and there is no proof the vessel is intended for U.S. shores. Under the auspices of the MDLEA, the U.S. Coast Guard apprehends crews from vessels suspected of carrying drugs on the high seas, charges them with crimes in the United States, and often subjects them to prolonged detention in inhumane conditions.

In the case of Robert and his crew, even though there were no drugs on board, they faced nightmarish conditions and prolonged detention at sea. Countless other people have suffered at the hands of the Coast Guard under this policy.

According to the men’s plea agreement, the men claimed their destination was the waters near the coast of Jamaica, when they were actually destined for Haiti. But at issue in this case is not whether the men lied to the Coast Guard. This case is about Congress’ authority to criminalize conduct on the high seas, including lying to a Coast Guard officer about one’s destination, that has no effect whatsoever on the United States.

At the time of our nation’s founding, the Constitution made a distinction between two different types of crimes on the high seas: piracy other felonies. The framers gave Congress the power to define and punish piracy, and a separate power to define and punish felonies. At the time, and today, international law allowed nations to criminalize piracy on the high seas, regardless of the connection to the country prosecuting. But piracy was the exception to the rule; in the case of other felonies, it was widely accepted, including by James Madison, that Congress could only punish felonies on the high seas if those acts had a nexus to the United States — if the defendant was a citizen, the boat was flying under a U.S. flag, or the conduct was directed at the United States.

In this case, there is no dispute that neither the crew nor their conduct had any connection to the United States. Robert and his crew are Jamaican nationals who were stopped in international waters on a vessel flying the Jamaican flag. They were not engaged in any conduct directed at the United States. In our petition to the Supreme Court, we argue that under the original understanding of the Constitution, Congress cannot criminalize the conduct of Robert and his crew because they had no connection to the U.S.

In upholding the men’s convictions, the lower court ignored the well-established nexus requirement, allowing Congress virtually unlimited authority to criminalize any conduct by anyone on the high seas. But this interpretation flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent and the original intent of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to correct this injustice. Nobody should again face the same cruelty as Robert and his crew.

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