Cruise Safety & Border Control Search

October 5, 2023 Criminal Defense

The state of Florida has one of the largest cruise ship industries in the world. With six different ports in varying coastal cities, locals and tourists alike embark on aquatic adventures throughout the year. Although cruises are meant to be a time for fun and relaxation, the government has implemented cautionary procedures and safety plans in place to address any crimes that may take place.

It is important to understand your rights and the steps to take if you find yourself being prosecuted by Florida or Federal law for an alleged offense on board a cruise or while disembarked. This page will provide insight into the Federal Cruise Security and Safety Act and information on Border Control’s ability to search and seize your belongings. We will also include details of a relevant case that recently took place in Florida. 

Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA)

The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 established the standard security and safety procedures for cruise ships embarking and disembarking from the United States. The Act focuses on standards for crime prevention, detection, evidence preservation, and the reporting of criminal activities in the international maritime environment.

As it was amended in 2014, the Act requires mandatory reporting of any missing persons or alleged criminal activity on a vessel to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Examples of criminal activity that must be reported include the following:

  • Assault with Serious Bodily Injury
  • Sexual Assault
  • Kidnapping
  • Homicide
  • Theft over $10,000
  • Tampering with Vessel
  • Missing U.S. Person

The Act’s Requirement to Report Crimes and Other Information specifies that any of the above criminal offenses must be reported to the nearest FBI Field Office or Legal Attache. Of particular note, Section (3)(A)(iv) states, “any other criminal incident involving passengers or crew members, or both, [may be reported] to the proper State or local government law enforcement authority.”

There are also civil and criminal penalties set in place for any cruise line or vessel owner who commits a violation of the Act. Any person who willfully violates a regulation through the Act can be fined up to $250,000 and face imprisonment for up to one year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Procedures

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) oversees implementing and maintaining the nation’s border control. CBP’s seach authority is codified under 19 C.F.R 162.6: “All persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof are liable to inspection by a CBP officer.” That means unless exempt through diplomatic status, any person entering the U.S., including U.S. citizens, are subjected to search and examination by a CBP officer.      

Border Control of Electronic Devices

In furtherance with CBP’s customs, their Border Search of Electronic Devices document provides guidance and standard procedures for searching, reviewing, retaining, and sharing information contained in computers, tablets, removable media, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones, cameras, music, and any other communication, electronic, or digital devices subjected to inbound and outbound border searches by CBP. These types of searches can help detect evidence relating to security matters such as terrorism, smuggling, contraband, and child pornography.

The Directive states it does not limit CBP’s authority to conduct lawful searches of electronic devices, such as those pursuant to a warrant, consent, or abandonment, or in response to exigent circumstances (an incident that requires immediate attention to prevent the harm of others or the destruction of evidence). However, Section 2.1 under Policy states that CBP will protect the rights of individuals against unreasonable search and seizure.

The following is provided under Section 4:

“Routine searches of the persons and effects of entrants [into the United States] are not subject to any requirement for reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or warrant.” (U.S. v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985). Additionally, the authority to conduct border searches extends not only to persons and merchandise entering the United States, but applies equally to those departing the country.”

When CBP conducts a search, it can either be a basic or advanced search. A basic search can be conducted, with or without suspicion, in which an officer examines, and reviews information encountered at the border. If there is reasonable suspicion for a violation of laws enforced by CBP, they may conduct an advanced search. An advanced search means any search where an officer connects external equipment to review, copy, and/or analyze its contents.

If there is probable cause to believe that the electronic device, or copy of its contents, contains evidence of a violation of law that CBP is authorized to enforce, officers may seize and retain the searched electronic device. Furthermore, the officer performing the border search is then responsible for completing the reporting requirements.

Extraterritorial Maritime Jurisdiction

The Department of Justice (DOJ) explains that certain instances allow jurisdiction over criminal prosecution for offenses committed across extraterritorial waters to be shared by both State and Federal government.

Additionally, the Florida Supreme Court decision in State v. Stepansky found that Florida’s jurisdiction was extended further into what would typically be considered exclusive federal jurisdiction. The case involved a defendant who was prosecuted by the State of Florida for crimes committed on a Liberian cruise approximately 100 nautical miles from the coastline of Florida.

Despite the federal government’s ability to exercise jurisdiction and prosecute the defendant, they did not. Neither did the foreign government where the alleged crime took place. Therefore, the Florida Supreme Court held that Florida’s jurisdiction in prosecuting the case was deemed constitutional. Further, “the federal power to prosecute crimes on the high seas did not preclude states from doing so when such acts violated the state’s laws.”

Example Case

A cruise ship passenger was arrested by a U.S. Border Protection agent for the possession of child pornography.

According to the report, Atlanta native Michael Fanning, 47, disembarked his cruise ship in Miami on August 23, 2023. While going through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at PortMiami’s Virgin Voyages cruise terminal, officers conducted a search of his cellphone.

Upon initial inspection, CBP agents found three instances of child abuse sexual material (CSAM) on his phone. After further inspection the agents found a total of five videos were found on Fanning’s phone, including sexual battery of boys as young as 8 years-old. The videos were found in a folder in Fanning’s iPhone labeled “Y” for “young” and were screen recorded via Twitter, now rebranded as X.

Fanning admitted to knowing about the stored videos on his cellphone and was charged with five counts of possession of child pornography. His bond has been set to $25,000, and he is currently being held in the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

Tallahassee Defense Attorney

If you or someone you know has been arrested for an alleged offense on a cruise ship, it is extremely important that you consider hiring a defense attorney. First, you should determine whether you are being prosecuted by the State or Federal government. If it is by the State, the defense attorneys at Pumphrey Law can answer any questions or concerns you may have in a free case consultation. Contact us today at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message.

Written by Karissa Key

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