Weir v. United States

Citation518 F.Supp.3d 1
Decision Date15 January 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 19-1708 (TFH)
CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Parties Robert Dexter WEIR, et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES of America, et al., Defendants.

Joshua S. Sohn, Pro Hac Vice, Patrick N. Petrocelli, Pro Hac Vice, Sarah M. Roe, Stroock & Stroock & LaVan LLP, Steven M. Watt, ACLU Foundation, New York, NY, Arthur B. Spitzer, American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC, Jonathan Hafetz, Newark, NJ, for Plaintiffs.

Douglas Morgan Hottle, Jill Dahlmann Rosa, Justin Rand Jolley, Thomas MacKinnon Brown, U.S. Department of Justice Space & Admiralty Litigation, Washington, DC, for Defendant United States of America.

Jill Dahlmann Rosa, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendant Karl L. Schultz.


Thomas F. Hogan, Senior United States District Judge

The plaintiffs in this case are Jamaican fishermen who the United States Coast Guard detained for 32 days before bringing them to the United States for prosecution in the Southern District of Florida. They challenge the Coast Guard's treatment of them during their detention on Coast Guard ships. Pending before the Court is the defendantsmotion to dismiss the Complaint on the grounds that all claims raised in the Complaint present a non-justiciable political question. [ECF No. 12]. The plaintiffs have opposed the motion, [ECF No. 16], and the defendants have filed a reply, [ECF No. 18].

I. Background
A. Factual Allegations

On the night of September 13, 2017, plaintiffs Robert Weir, Patrick Ferguson, Luther Patterson and David Williams left Half Moon fishing village near Falmouth, Jamaica, in the Josette , a 32-foot Jamaican-registered fishing boat. Compl. ¶ 23. The four Jamaican fishermen were headed to retrieve fish traps that Mr. Ferguson had left a few days earlier in the Morant Cays, an island group located in Jamaican territorial waters seven to eight hours from Falmouth. Id. ¶ 23. They planned to spend the day on the cays and return late in the evening on September 14, 2017. Id. ¶ 24.

On the boat, they carried fishing gear, overnight bags, Mr. Ferguson's fighting cock, Jah Roos, and clothes for his two-year old daughter. Id. ¶¶ 25-26. Hours after departing, a storm caused the boat's main engine to lose power, and the boat drifted off course. Id. ¶ 27. On the morning of September 14, the now-lost crew navigated towards the nearest visible landmass, without realizing that it was Haiti. Id. ¶ 28.

Later that morning, officers on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Confidence saw the Josette heading for Haiti. Id. ¶ 29. They suspected the Josette ’s crew of drug trafficking. Coast Guard officers intercepted the Josette around noon, and searched the boat for three or four hours. Id. ¶ 30; 36. The officers used an ion-scan detection device, but found no marijuana or traces of marijuana in the Josette or on the crew. Id. ¶ 37. The plaintiffs provided identification, and told the Coast Guard that they were fishermen. Id. ¶ 34-35.

The Coast Guard officers then transported the plaintiffs to the Confidence , and killed Jah Roos. Id. ¶ 39. On board the Confidence , officers ordered the plaintiffs to remove their clothes and shoes, confiscated their clothing and overnight bags, and gave them "paper-thin coveralls and a pair of thin, disposable slippers." Id. ¶ 40-41. They chained the plaintiffs by their ankles to metal cables on the ship's deck. Id. ¶ 42. The Coast Guard shot a flair at the Josette and "riddled its hull with bullets," causing the boat to catch fire and sink. Id. ¶ 43.

The Confidence sailed for about three days and four nights before stopping at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Id. ¶ 45. During that time, the Coast Guard kept the plaintiffs chained by their ankles, and only released them to relieve themselves. Id. As shelter, the Coast Guard officers gave them a "plastic tarpaulin" that provided little protection from the elements. The plaintiffs’ skin "blistered due to exposure to the sun, wind and salt air." Id. ¶ 46. The Coast Guard failed to provide them with washing facilities. They had to urinate over the side of the ship and defecate in a metal bucket, and were allowed one cold shower while aboard the Confidence. Id. ¶ 47. The Coast Guard provided them with "only a thin rubber mat to sleep on and a thin blanket," gave them briny water and "three identical meals a day: a meager ration of cold rice and beans." Id. ¶ 48-49. The plaintiffs repeatedly asked Coast Guard officers to allow them to call their families to tell them they were alive, or to do so on their behalf, but the officers refused. Id. ¶ 51.

When the Confidence docked at Guantanamo Bay, the Coast Guard transferred the plaintiffs to a second ship. Id. ¶ 53. The Coast Guard chained them to the deck of this ship for more than a week, and refused their requests to contact their families. Id. ¶¶ 56, 58. The ship set sail for Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, churning nearby. Id. ¶ 57. "Even during the worst of the storm when high winds battered the men and rain and seawater constantly drenched them, the Coast Guard refused to allow the men to shelter inside the ship." Id. ¶ 59. Officers told the plaintiffs there was no tarpaulin onboard to shelter them. Id. The ship "pitched, rolled and swayed," and the plaintiffs, chained to the ship's deck, feared they would be severely injured or that the cables restraining them would break and they would be "washed overboard to their deaths." Id. ¶ 60.

The Coast Guard gave them two thin sheets for bedding, a "shared metal bucket for a toilet" and allowed them to take two or three cold showers. Id. ¶ 61-62. The plaintiffs developed saltwater rashes and fungal infections

. Id. The food they were provided was rancid and consisted only of small helpings of rice and beans. The drinking water was briny and made the plaintiffs nauseous. Id. ¶ 63. They developed ear, nose, throat, chest and skin infections from exposure to the elements. Id. ¶ 64. The Coast Guard informed them there was no doctor onboard, and their injuries went untreated. Id.

After briefly docking in St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, the ship sail for Puerto Rico and docked in San Juan a few days later. Id. ¶ 65-66. While in the port, the plaintiffs could not discard the contents of their bucket toilet or use the ship's indoor toilet; instead, they had to "sit next to the bucket, filled with feces, for the two days and two nights that the ship remained there." Id. ¶ 67. The plaintiffs began to contemplate suicide. Id. ¶ 69.

Two days after leaving the port of San Juan, the plaintiffs were transferred to a third ship where, although still chained to the deck of the ship, they were held in better conditions. Id. ¶¶ 71-72. The Coast Guard allowed them to sleep under a covered enclosure, provided them with a rubber mat and blanket, and allowed them to use an enclosed portable toilet and to shower every other day. Id. ¶¶ 73-74. They provided the men with better meals – adding meat or chicken to the rice and beans, and occasionally giving them fruit and vegetables. Id. ¶ 75. The Coast Guard still gave the plaintiffs briny water that made them nauseous. Id. They began to experience symptoms of dehydration. Id. ¶ 75. A medic saw the plaintiffs and provided them with some treatment for their physical injuries. Id. ¶ 76. The Coast Guard continued to deny their requests to notify their families. Id. ¶ 77.

Around October 13, the Coast Guard transferred the plaintiffs to a fourth ship that docked off the coast of Miami on October 16, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 78; 85. The Coast Guard again chained them to the deck of the ship. Id. ¶ 79. The Coast Guard only released them to use a shared metal bucket as a toilet, and to take a cold, salt-water shower after a "sewage pipe next to them burst, soaking the deck and the men in feces and other excrement." Id. ¶ 81. The Coast Guard gave them thin blankets, with nothing to sleep on, and three small daily portions of rice and beans "served cold and often rancid." Id. ¶ 83. Although the Coast Guard informed them that there was not enough food, the men could smell fresh meals being cooked elsewhere on the deck. Id.

During their 32-day detention, the Coast Guard did not inform the men how long it would hold them or where it would take them. Id. ¶ 84. By the time they reached Miami, they were gaunt, and physically and psychologically traumatized. Id. Their families believed they were dead, and began selling their personal possessions and livestock. Id. ¶ 88.

The government originally charged the plaintiffs with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, in violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act ("MDLEA"), 46 U.S.C. §§ 70503(a)(1) and 70506(b), before dropping those charges and instead charging them with providing materially false information to a federal law enforcement officer. Id. ¶ 89. The men pled guilty to that charge, even though they now assert that they had not lied to law enforcement officials. Id. ¶ 91. They served 10 months in prison, and two months in federal immigration detention. Id. ¶¶ 91; 93. Since returning home, Mssrs. Weir, Patterson, and Williams only fish in Jamaican territorial waters and do not venture into international waters, even though the catch is smaller and less lucrative. Id. ¶ 95. Mr. Ferguson has not ventured out to sea at all. Id.

B. Procedural History

The plaintiffs filed their Complaint against the United States and Admiral Karl L. Schultz, Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, in June of 2019. Counts One through Seven of the Complaint assert tort claims for false imprisonment, negligence, conversion, battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, respectively. Counts Eight through Ten assert customary international law claims for forced disappearance, inhuman or degrading treatment, and...

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