This week I traveled from Miami to California to attend a hearing at the state capital building in Sacramento. California Assemblyman Roger Hernández (D – West Covina) had introduced legislation that will permit the State of California to prosecute criminals on cruise ships which call on California ports.
This is an important bill. In all states except Florida, only the FBI has jurisdiction to investigate crimes outside territorial waters and the crimes must be prosecuted only by the Federal government. Unfortunately, the FBI has a very poor track record investigating shipboard crimes and only a small fraction of such crimes are ever prosecuted.
California has addressed this problem by introducing a bill that will permit state prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against crew members and passengers who commit crimes against passengers on cruises which begin and end in California. In instances where the FBI or DOJ decline to become involved, the state of California can become involved and a state attorney can prosecute the crime.
I had the opportunity to review the bill and meet with Assemblyman Hernández. Issues were raised in opposition to the bill whether the bill was unconstitutional because it may violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and impermissibly tread upon an area which was preempted by Federal law. My analysis led me to conclude that the bill was constitutional and a valid exercise of the state of California to protect individuals sailing from its ports.
Members of the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization (photo left) attended the hearing. Charmian and ICV founder Ken Carver traveled from Phoenix, Arizona to discuss the disappearance of his daughter, Merrian Carver, during a cruise aboard a Celebrity cruise ship, and the failure of the Federal government to investigate the incident or prosecute the cruise line when it engaged in a cover-up .
Friend and former client Laurie Dishman (photo below) testified about her horrific experiences during a Royal Caribbean cruise, when a part time security guard (hired as a janitor/cleaner) raped her and then the cruise line forced her to remain in the crime scene for several hours. When she was finally permitted to go to ship infirmary, the ship doctor handed Laurie black garbage bags and told her to return to the cabin and collect her own evidence. Laurie explained to the Assembly how the Federal government failed her. The FBI closed its investigation within 8 hours after the cruise ship returned to port in Southern California and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the case despite substantial evidence which should have led to a conviction of the cruise line rapist.
ICV President Jamie Barnett, told the Assembly about the circumstances of losing her daughter, Ashley, during a Carnival cruise and the indifference demonstrated by the FBI to her family’s plight. (You can read about Jamie’s efforts to protect the cruising public in The Compelling Story of Jamie Barnett – Living Through the Loss).
The assembly room was packed. You could hear a pin drop as Ken, Laurie and Jamie testified. Although there were technical legal concerns with the legality of the bill, the Public Safety committee of Assembly voted unanimously in support of passing the bill.
The experience reinforced a conclusion that I reached long ago. At the end of the day, legislators are less concerned with technical mumbo-jumbo legal arguments and more concerned with the compelling stories of victims appearing before them.
There are additional committees which will review the bill before it is passed into law, but this was a historic event nonetheless.
Congratulations to the ICV members and its supporting friends. A special thanks should go to Ken, Jamie, and Laurie for taking a leadership position in supporting this important bill which will make cruising safer.
Photograph credit: Jim Walker (sorry for the poor quality, photos taken on my blackberry).