Florida Wants to Take Over Crime Prosecution on Cruise Ships

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Cruise lines have gained a reputation of underreporting crimes and accidents by registering their ships in foreign ports and handing over investigative jurisdiction to those countries, which often fail to properly follow through with cases. And while cruise lines are required by maritime law to report crimes to the FBI, many have failed to do so, whether purposefully or negligently, allowing criminals to get away and avoid any liability for their actions.

But following a recent revelation that Disney Cruise Line  allowed a crew member child molester to get away with his heinous deed, even though the crime took place while the vessel in question, the Disney Dream, was docked at Port Canaveral, police officials in Brevard County have put their foot down.

Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer is sick and tired of cruise ships getting away with crimes, and said he is willing to exercise the State of Florida’s jurisdiction to crimes that occur on ships when they are in waters beyond Florida’s three-mile limit.

The move stems from the cruise ship sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl on the Disney Dream on Aug. 5, 2012. Despite the little girl informing her family and ship authorities of exactly what happened, despite the fact that an investigation was initiated while the ship was in port, and despite the fact that the entire crime was caught on camera, Disney authorities failed to inform the FBI and local officials until 16 hours had passed. By this time, the vessel was well out of Florida jurisdiction, and sure enough, Disney turned over all responsibility of the matter to Bahamian authorities, where the ship is registered.

This is very unbecoming of Disney, which, of all cruise lines, has maintained the best reputation as a family-friendly company that is less prone to accidents and crime. Yet, this incident just goes to show that crime can occur on any vessel at any time.

Had Disney officials done what they were supposed to do and informed officials of the matter promptly, Orlando police would have had plenty of time to board the vessel, conduct an investigation and have the suspect arrested.

The video of the despicable cruise ship molestation of the minor passenger has sent shock waves through the maritime community, leaving many to wonder how a crime that was caught on camera could not have been properly prosecuted.

After watching the video of the suspect, a 33-year-old dining room server, molest the little girl in one of the ship’s elevators, State Attorney Archer said he was “sickened.”

“That man should have been walked off in handcuffs and been sitting in jail in Brevard County,” he said.

Instead, the suspect, who even admitted to molesting the girl, was then sent home on a Disney-paid flight to India after the victim’s grandmother decided she did not want to prosecute.

It is unknown why the girl’s grandmother decided not to follow through with the case, but according to Archer, the decision to prosecute a crime of such magnitude in Florida rests with a prosecutor, not a family member.

“We have to look out for the larger interests that are at stake. Are we going to allow someone like that to do that to another family?” Archer asked.

Despite the grandmother wanting to dismiss charges, under Florida law, sexual assault on a child under 12 years of age is a felony crime, punishable by 25 years to life in prison. The suspect should have been arrested and prosecuted before he has the chance to hurt another child, as most sexual offenders tend to commit repeated crimes.

“This is a serious case. This is a case that should have been brought to us at some point,” continued Archer.

Meanwhile, Disney Cruise Line said it “took proper action,” despite the fact the company changed its story several times, at first claiming it knew nothing of the incident, then saying it did but it was too late, along with a jumble of other false statements.

Archer, relying on a Florida Supreme Court ruling, said he is willing to file charges for crimes occurring anywhere on the sea, as long as the ships sail from Brevard and federal authorities decline to investigate or prosecute.

“We’re just setting those protocols up right now and I think the next case that comes down the pike will be one that we can look at,” said Archer.

This could be a huge step forward in holding both criminals and cruise lines accountable for incidents that occur onboard a vessel while in a Florida port.

In 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Florida can prosecute crimes occurring beyond the state’s three-mile limit, as long as federal authorities decline. And while this ruling has hardly been put to use, it’s may be about to get a lot of action now that Brevard authorities are pushing for justice.

Our cruise ship crime lawyers know all too well that too many suspects and cruise companies get away with incidents they should have been prosecuted for. Hopefully this move will serve as a deterrent to cruise lines and finally make them see that they should accept accountability for the crimes that occur under their watch.