WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of D.C., and the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP today filed a lawsuit against the United States Coast Guard, seeking damages on behalf of four Jamaican fishermen who were secretly detained without due process at sea in inhumane conditions on four Coast Guard ships for over a month.
This case arises out of the forced disappearance and brutal treatment of four Jamaican fishermen, Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson, and David Roderick Williams as part of the Coast Guard’s unlawful detention and mistreatment policy that ramped up in 2012 as part of the United States’ “war on drugs.” Under this policy, the Coast Guard stops boats in international waters, searches them and their crew for drugs, destroys boats, and detains crewmembers for prolonged periods of time in inhumane conditions, regardless of whether any drugs are found aboard.
After stopping their fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea, the Coast Guard seized the fishermen and destroyed their boat by setting it on fire and riddling it with bullets. The Coast Guard held the men in secret for more than a month, chaining them to the exposed decks of four different Coast Guard ships all while denying them access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food, and medical care. The ships made stops in Guantanamo Bay, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico.
“The Coast Guard has no authority to kidnap and disappear fishermen who are trying to make a living for themselves and their families,” said Steven Watt, senior staff attorney with the Human Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. “One evening our clients went out fishing, and the next thing their families knew — they were gone. The Coast Guard chained our clients to decks of its ships for over a month, exposed them to the elements, even during a hurricane, and didn’t even let them tell their families that they were alive. These men deserve justice.”
For most of their detention, the Coast Guard kept the men outdoors on the decks of the ships and exposed to the elements, 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.
“There are no human rights out there,” said Luther Fian Patterson, one of the fishermen. “They treat you like animals. You are like an animal…chained to the deck on your foot.”
Throughout the ordeal, the Coast Guard denied the men a phone call, refusing their repeated pleas to contact their families in Jamaica to let them know they were alive or even to contact their families on their behalf. On each of the four ships, Coast Guard officers told the men that it was against policy to allow them to make such a call.
After making stops in Guantanamo Bay, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard delivered the men to Miami in October 2017. The United States initially charged the men with conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana. The men pleaded not guilty to these charges and were detained pending trial. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting their case acknowledged that it would, in fact, have taken “a miracle” to prove to a jury that there were ever any drugs on the men’s boat.
While detained the men were finally permitted to call their families and loved ones back home — the first time in over a month. When they spoke with them the men learned that their families had presumed them dead after they failed to return home from their fishing trip.
The United States ultimately charged the men with providing “false information” to the Coast Guard about the boat’s destination. They 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 that it was the quickest and surest way to get back to their homes and families in Jamaica and to put an end to their nightmare.
A federal court sentenced them each to ten months’ imprisonment, and after serving their sentences and spending a further two months in federal immigration detention due to delays caused by the U.S. government, the United States removed the men to Jamaica in August 2018, nearly a year after they had left Jamaica.
As a result of the Coast Guard’s secret detention and inhumane treatment of the four men, they have suffered and continue to suffer physical and psychological trauma. They also returned to their families financially ruined.
The men would like to return to fishing as they once did, but fear that if they do so, they will again be subjected to the Coast Guard’s unlawful detention, property-destruction, and mistreatment policy. That policy and its enforcement is well-documented, and without changes to it, these fishermen and others like them continue to be at risk of being subjected to it.
This lawsuit is brought under general admiralty and maritime tort law to recover damages for the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma resulting from the men’s over-month-long inhumane treatment and secret detention by the Coast Guard and for the Coast Guard’s destruction of their fishing boat and other property. The lawsuit also seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against the Coast Guard so that the men can once again freely ply their trade as fishermen in international waters near Jamaica without exposure to the Coast Guard’s unlawful policy and practice.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The complaint can be found here:
A documentary video chronicling the men’s experience can be found here:
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