Decision could have major implications for seafarers’ rights to privacy in their own cabins
By Steve Matthews | LLOYD’S LIST
THE rights of seafarers to privacy in their own cabins onboard ships has been brought into question as a result of a recent court ruling in the US, which appears to deny seafarers the legal protection that other citizens would have in their homes.
Anlgo-Dutch officers’ trade union Nautilus International has raised concerns about the ruling saying that is has major implications for seafarers’ rights to privacy in their own cabins.
The case concerned a seafarer onboard the small 3,382 dwt Panama-flagged containership Rio Miami, which arrived at Miami in April 2008 following a regular voyage from the Dominican Republic.
Officers from the US Customs & Border Protection, part of the Department for Homeland Security, conducted an agricultural re-boarding, checking food waste and garbage and searching for prohibited agricultural material. The search included seafarers’ cabins. In searching the cabin of the El Salvadorean ship’s cook Hilario Alfano-Moncada, the officers found DVDs containing child pornography. He was charged with offences related to that possession and subsequently convicted and sentenced to 87 months imprisonment.
Part of the appeal against conviction and sentence was that the search of his cabin was unlawful and violated his rights under the US Constitution because the officers had no warrant to search the cabin, nor grounds for suspicion that he had committed any offence.
The US Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit dismissed the appeal. It ruled that “there are no inspection-free zones on a foreign cargo vessel at the US border” and that seafarers’ cabins are not covered by usual protection against unreasonable searches and seizures on the grounds that they could be used to smuggle “contraband or weapons of mass destruction that threaten national security. A crew member’s cabin, like the rest of the ship on which it is located, can and does pose that threat.”
The judgment said: “Any expectation of privacy a crew member has in his living quarters is weaker when those quarters are brought to the border of this country.”
The court ruled that this overrides the fact that a cabin is a seafarer’s home, which would normally lead to an entitlement to protection under the fourth amendment to the US Constitution.
Nautilus has previously raised concerns with the UK government about searches of seafarers’ cabins and particularly their computers onboard ships in UK ports. The union is seeking to clarify the position in the UK in terms of what legal safeguards seafarers when shipboard searches are carried out and that seafarers are entitled to the same legal protection as other citizens.
Child pornography is indefensible, period. But the fact that one crewmember of one ship had it should not allow one to consider any seafarer a potential criminal.
People on board ships are humans, no less, and are entitled to the same fundamental rights as anybody else — and perhaps some more: they give up a lot to keep the world running.
It is a shame that the United States see ships and crews as threats to their security.
I sincerely hope this does not develop into full-blown argophobia.