ACLU Petitions Court to Vacate Wrongful Convictions of Jamaican Fishermen
Petition filing complements ongoing litigation against the United States Coast Guard for kidnapping and abusive treatment of four Jamaican men
MIAMI, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, and the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP have filed a petition requesting a federal court to vacate the unconstitutional convictions of four Jamaican fishermen who were secretly detained at sea for more than a month on four U.S. Coast Guard ships, without due process and in inhumane conditions. While a separate lawsuit challenges the unlawful secret and abusive detention of the men at sea, the grounds for the current petition, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, are that the Court lacked jurisdiction to prosecute the men in federal court in Miami.
The filing follows the federal lawsuit filed earlier this summer in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that arose out of the forced disappearance and brutal treatment in 2017 of the four fishermen: Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson, and David Roderick Williams. Their unlawful detention occurred under the U.S. Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act and the so-called “Shiprider agreement;” a bi-lateral agreement between the U.S. government and Jamaica that allows the Coast Guard to stop and board Jamaican-flagged boats in international waters, search their crew members for illicit substances, destroy boats and detain crewmembers for arbitrary periods of time–regardless of whether any illicit substances are found aboard.
In this case, the Coast Guard boarded the fishermen’s boat, seized and detained its crew and later destroyed the men’s boat by setting it on fire and riddling it with bullets. The Coast Guard detained the men for the next 32 days by chaining them to the exposed decks of four different Coast Guard ships–even as one of the ships sailed into a hurricane. The men’s skin burned and blistered in the sun, and they were drenched and chilled by rain and sea water.
Coast Guard officers denied the men access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food and water, and medical care. The Coast Guard also refused the men’s repeated requests to contact their families in Jamaica to let them know that they were alive, as well as their requests that the Coast Guard contact their families on their behalf.
“These men should never have been detained in the first place, much less charged,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. “Our clients’ most basic human rights were stripped from them while they were in Coast Guard custody. They were forced to withstand inhumane circumstances, kept from their homes and families for more than three months and wrongfully convicted of committing a crime. The reality is that Congress lacks the constitutional authority to charge our clients, and after all that they were put through– their convictions should be vacated.”
The men were eventually delivered by the Coast Guard to Miami to face charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana, They pleaded not guilty to this charge, and were detained pending trial. Acknowledging that it would be virtually impossible to prove the men had drugs on their boat, the United States instead charged the men only with providing “false information” to the Coast Guard about the boat’s destination.
According to U.S. prosecutors, the men claimed their destination was the waters near the coast of Jamaica, when they were actually destined for Haiti. In fact, the men had not lied to the Coast Guard officers. They pleaded guilty because they were told by their attorneys that it was the quickest and surest way to get back to their homes and families in Jamaica and put an end to their nightmare. The current petition challenges those convictions as unconstitutional because, even assuming the men lied to the Coast Guard officers, the United States cannot criminalize statements made by foreign nationals on foreign-flagged vessels to United States officials when made in international waters (where the Coast Guard had stopped the men and their boat) because such conduct had no potential harm in the United States.
A copy of the filing is available here: https://www.aclufl.org/sites/default/files/petition_for_coram_nobis_fina…
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