Trouble afloat, say victims of cruise-ship crime

Cruise ships conjure up happy visions of the Love Boat and the sun-kissed South Pacific. But a crime-victims advocacy group says there's a lot going on that people don't know about–and that passengers often are at risk.

The state Department of Justice would be required to place a law enforcement officer on any cruise ship that docks in California, under legislation carried by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.  Simitian's SB 1582 easily emerged from  the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 5-0 vote on Tuesday, despite objections from the industry-backed Cruise Lines International Association.

Simitian said that he was pushing to bill to ensure safety of passengers and the accountability of cruise lines.

"Right now, there are no guarantees whatsoever," Simitian said. "It's an honor system. The cruise lines say ‘Trust us.'"

The bill is supported by the International Cruise Victims Association, an advocacy group that claims there is far more crime happening on vacation cruise ships than most potential customers are aware of. A co-founder of the organization, Kendall Carver, testified at the Public Safety hearing on Tuesday. His daughter, Marian Carver, disappeared two days into a seven-day cruise operated by Royal Caribbean from Seattle to Alaska in 2004. According to the Carver, a ship steward reported to the ship's management that Carver was missing for several days, but Royal Caribbean was slow to report her disappearance, then later ignored a subpoena and destroyed a surveillance tape that might have shed light on what happened to the 40 year old.

"They gave her personal items to charity," Kendall Carver told the Capitol Weekly. "They didn't call us or the FBI." He added: "Cover up is the standard operating procedure."

Eric Ruff of the Cruise Lines Association testified against the bill. Crimes on cruise ships are rare, he said. He also said SB 1582 conflicts with the federal constitution because states are not allowed to engage in many of the activities that the state paid "Ocean Rangers" would need to engage in. He claimed the bill would have at least four Constitution issues, including illegal search and seizure and a state negotiating with a foreign government. These issues, Ruff said, could then be used by anyone arrested by an Ocean Ranger to avoid prosecution.

"The people we would want to see behind bars would walk," Ruff said.

Ruff urged California to model its statute on a Florida law  that he said has passed constitutional muster. Cruise ships notify the FBI when crimes occur, Ruff said. Under the Florida law, if the FBI or another federal agency does not investigate, then state and local law enforcement in Florida can investigate a crime on a ship that has docked in a Florida port.

But Carver said that he spoke to the FBI about his daughter's case, and they told him they don't have the resources to look into these cases.

The cruise lines take the legal position they do not investigate crimes," Carver said. "They say, we go to the FBI, which is voluntary. The FBI says they don't have the resources. No one does anything."

The committee also heard testimony from Laurie Dishman of Sacramento. She said a security guard sexually assaulted her in her cabin in 2006 on another Royal Caribbean-operated ship. The guard was originally hired as a janitor and only became a guard because of a lack of trained guards on that particular cruise. When she tried to report the crime to the ship's management, Dishman said, she was rebuffed and even told to gather evidence by using a police "rape kit" on herself.

In fact, Carver said, a majority of crimes on cruise ships are committed by crew members, with sexual assault being the most common crime. Most incidents are never reported to U.S. law enforcement authorities, he said. Over a period of just under five months last year, according to the FBI, they received 207 complaints of serious crimes on cruise ships. This included 41 sexual assaults and four missing persons.

Simitian said that he checked his language with the Legislative Counsel before introducing the bill, and they said it had no constitutional issues. This is the fourth time he's carried cruise-ship related legislation–the previous bills had to do with ocean dumping and other environmental issues.

Simitian contends the constitutional issues raised by the $32 billion industry are intended cloak the magnitude of the problem.

"We know the problem is worse than the industry is inclined to acknowledge," Simitian said. "I can understand why they would want to change the subject."

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