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Fresh lawsuit - ACLU challenging constitutionality of law used to convict J’can fishermen in US

Published:Friday | August 16, 2019 | 12:00 AMNickoy Wilson/Gleaner Writer
Robert Weir
Luther Patterson
David Williams

Human-rights group American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) yesterday filed a new lawsuit on behalf of three Jamaican fishermen challenging the constitutionality of the law used to convict them in the United States in October 2017.

Their contention lies with United States Code Title 18 Section 2237. (a)(2)(B). A section of the law states: “It shall be unlawful for any person on board a vessel ... [registered in a foreign nation if that nation has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States] … to provide materially false information to a federal law enforcement officer during a boarding of a vessel regarding the vessel’s destination, origin, ownership, registration, nationality, cargo, or crew.”

The Jamaican nationals – Robert Weir, David Williams and Luther Patterson – are petitioning the court to issue writs of error coram nobis vacating convictions on the grounds that the court lacked the jurisdiction over their extraterritorial conduct and that their convictions are, therefore, unconstitutional.

The men also had previously filed a lawsuit against the US Coast Guard for detaining them at high seas in inhumane conditions for 32 days.

Chained up in harsh weather

Weir, Williams, Patterson and another fishermen Patrick Ferguson claimed they were captured by the members of the US Coast Guard, stripped naked, given white, paper-thin overalls and disposable slippers to wear instead, and subsequently chained by their ankles to metal cables in harsh weather conditions aboard the vessel.

George Thompson, the fifth fisherman who was detained with them, is not a part of the suit.

When the men arrived in the US in October 2017 to face drug-related charges, the case collapsed and they were subsequently convicted on charges of providing “false information” to the Coast Guard about the boat’s destination.

In the lawsuit filed yesterday in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Florida, the men are challenging the constitutionality of the US law criminalising the provision of false information to Coast Guard officers during the Coast Guard’s boarding of the men’s foreign-flagged boat on the high seas.

Further, the suit said that the men’s “false information” – that they were fishing in Jamaican waters, and not heading towards Haiti – had no potential effect or harm in the United States.

They argue that under the United States Constitution, Congress is only authorised to define and punish conduct occurring on the high seas that has potential effects in this country and so simply lying about one’s intended destination has no effect in the United States and would give the Coast Guard overboard powers of arrest.

Ultimately, they are asking the court to recognise this fact and to strike down the law as unconstitutional and set aside the men’s convictions.