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Mystery at Sea: Who Polices the Ships?

Mystery at Sea: Who Polices the Ships?  
February 26, 2006
From the New York TImes
Originally Posted on: http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/travel/26crime.html?pagewanted=print

MENTION crime on cruise ships, and George Smith, the honeymooner who vanished from Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas last year, comes to mind — particularly if you watch cable TV.

But Connie Eagerton is reminded of another kind of disappearance: the $32,000 worth of jewelry she found missing from her suite on a recent Mediterranean cruise.

"I'm not sure what happened to it," said Ms. Eagerton, who publishes a real estate magazine in Ocala, Fla. "And I can't get a straight answer from the cruise line."

The major cruise lines don't release comprehensive crime statistics. But it is safe to say that there are many offenses — burglaries, thefts and assaults — that don't necessarily make for good talk-show fodder.

It is these wrongdoings, which often go unreported to law enforcement officials, that raise two questions: How safe are you on a cruise ship? And what happens if you're the victim of an onboard crime?

"Anything can happen on a ship," said Thomas A. Dickerson, the author of "Travel Law" (Law Journal Press, 2006). "But how do you know what you are getting yourself into before you go on a cruise?"

In fact, your legal rights depend on whether the vessel is in port or within a country's territorial waters, where local law may apply, or on the high seas, where maritime law is in force. Few passengers are aware that the rules effectively change during their cruise, and when they find out what their rights are — and aren't — they are often surprised.

That was what happened to Ms. Eagerton. The last time she saw her jewelry, she was preparing to disembark from the Grand Princess in Venice, after a 12-day cruise last fall. She noticed it was missing on her return home the next day. After she made several attempts to contact the cruise line, Princess asked her to fill out a report and fax it back. To date, the cruise line has not recovered her belongings. (Her insurance company did, however, process a claim for $26,000 after she filed her report.)

Karen Tetherow, a spokeswoman for Princess, confirmed that Ms. Eagerton notified the cruise line that her jewelry was missing a full day after disembarking, but said that by this time the ship had left port. She added that Princess has "extensive fleet regulations in place that provide guidance to our ships as to what action should be taken if a serious crime occurs."
The cruise industry, for its part, insists that floating vacations are perfectly safe. J. Michael Crye, the president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade association for the cruise industry, says a cruise is as safe as "your average community in the United States and, I would think, safer than staying at a motel."

In recent Congressional testimony following Mr. Smith's disappearance, Mr. Crye cited the following statistics: the national rate of violent crimes is about 465.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports an average of only 50 crimes a year against U.S. citizens on cruises. According to the Bureau of Justice, 1 in every 1,000 people is raped or sexually assaulted on land each year; on cruise ships, there is only one alleged incident of sexual assault for every 100,000 passengers.

While legal experts don't necessarily dispute these statistics, they say that a closer look at the numbers suggests a deeper problem. For example, if a serious crime is committed at sea against an American citizen, the ship's security staff is supposed to report it to the F.B.I. But there are at least two exemptions: crimes against noncitizens are not included, and it is largely left up to the ship's security officers as to what constitutes a "serious" crime. Similarly, the statistics on assault and rape may be artificially low, according to legal experts. Many passengers are unwilling to report an assault because of the humiliating nature of the crime, and because they are uncertain of their legal status at sea.

"The cruise lines go out of their way to hide crime statistics," said Alexander Anolik, a lawyer, based in San Francisco, specializing in travel law. "They try to minimize their statistics and minimize their failures." Mr. Anolik says that in their efforts to make cruises appear safer, ships try to "handle" crimes internally. "But the reports that are taken by a ship's security officers are not always reported to the F.B.I.," he said. "So we don't have an accurate idea of how safe a cruise is." (Mr. Crye of the International Council of Cruise Lines denied that the industry conceals crime statistics, saying it has pledged "full reporting of any crime to the appropriate authorities.")

What are your chances of becoming the victim of a crime at sea? "Let's put it this way," said Paul S. Edelman, a maritime law expert with the New York firm Kreindler & Kreindler. "I wouldn't think that the chances of something happening to you on a ship are greater than if you were just staying at a hotel." The crimes can be different, though. Altercations between guests or between guests and staff members are more likely in the close environment of a ship.

The way in which the crimes are prosecuted can be different, too. "Crimes at sea are controlled by admiralty law," said Jeffrey Miller, a lawyer specializing in travel with the Columbia, Md., law firm of Lipshultz & Miller. "If the crime is committed in the territorial waters of a country or at port, then that country's laws and criminal justice system are in control," he said. "Thus a crime while in port in Cozumel or in Mexican waters would lead to Mexican justice — or lack thereof."

While this may seem confusing in principle, it isn't in practice, according to the cruise lines. "In port, a crime is reported to local law enforcement," explained Tim Gallagher, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines. At sea, the ship's security officer is notified of a crime. "The security officer would meet with the victim or the person reporting the crime, and take statements. It's our policy to report any crime that occurs where an American citizen is involved to the F.B.I.," he said.

If someone is believed to have committed a crime on the high seas, the captain can decide whether to incarcerate a suspect until the ship reaches home port or to remove that person at the next port of call — even if it is in another country.

Mr. Gallagher said Carnival's standard operating procedure is to detain a suspect in a "serious" crime and hand the passenger over to the F.B.I. in the next port. Typically, he added, the kinds of passengers who are removed from the ship early are those who have engaged in unruly behavior.

He also argues, as do other cruise industry officials, that the line dividing a serious crime from a petty crime may be different for passengers than for security officers. "Is a missing pair of $200 sunglasses a 'serious' crime?" he asked. "It might be to a passenger, but it probably isn't to a security officer." Ms. Tetherow, the Princess spokeswoman, said "lesser crimes" like property theft or minor altercations between passengers are only reported to local law enforcement officials "if requested by one of the passengers involved."

As a matter of fact, said Mr. Gallagher, most items that are reported lost or stolen are eventually recovered.

Passengers bear some responsibility for their own safety, too. "You need to be as vigilant about crime aboard a ship or in port as you would be at home," said Mr. Miller. "Don't leave valuables out, and follow the guidelines issued by the cruise line." Legal experts say that if you are a victim of a crime onboard, it's important to find out if it will be reported to local or federal authorities. If it is, ask for a copy of the paperwork. If it isn't, they say, then there is nothing stopping you from reporting it yourself.