As I'm apt to say, the maritime law is full of interesting barnacles that tend to keep me awake and alert. Most of what I write and talk about concerns the civil side of the maritime law, but lest you fear, this country has a lazarette's worth of written laws relating to maritime crimes. Some of these laws sound antiquated, but they all seem to be driving toward the common goal of maintaining some sort of civility when the horizon bends out of view.
For instance, cruelty to seaman is forbidden by United States statute. Specifically, flogging, beating or wounding a seaman can subject a vessel's master or officer to fines and imprisonment for up to five years. Similarly, imprisoning, holding back "suitable food and nourishment" or inflicting corporal or cruel and unusual punishment upon a seaman will result in a similar punishment.
There's also the prohibition against forcing folks into the service of a vessel which I thought was called "conscription." However, the applicable United States statue is entitled "Shanghaiing Sailors" and provides that the offending party is subject to a penalty of fines and imprisonment. Although there appears to be little case law on this statutory section, I can report that the "Shanghaiing" prohibition remains alive and well. It also appears that the salty maneuver of marooning some poor mariner is likewise prohibited by United States statute. The guilty master or commander is subject to fines and imprisonment of up to six months.
The legislators clearly had no patience for certain crimes and meted out stiff penalties. For instance, try pretty much anything that could reasonably be read to amount to mutiny and you're looking at fines and imprisonment of up to ten years. In broad speak, anyone employed aboard any merchant vessel who willfully or because of intoxication ("drunkenness" to use the statute's language) commits any act which might cause the immediate loss or serious damage to the vessel or injury to a person shall be imprisoned for not more than one year. This statute reads a little like the "Go to Jail" card in Monopoly as it appears that an alternate fine is not an option. And for those who intend to riot or stir up others to disobey the vessel's master you might face up to a maximum of five years in prison. Likewise, mariners that unlawfully confine the master or commanding officer can also spend five years in the can.
There's also laws against breaking and entering vessels (that's a five year'er), there's a law entitled "Violence against aids to maritime navigation" (possible twenty year sentence), and then the whopper of all laws entitled "Destruction of vessel by owner." The penalty for violating that law is stark and reads "shall be imprisoned for life or any term of years."
Reading these statutes can give you a chuckle what with their phrasing and rusty sounding language. Contact our maritime law offices if you have specific questions about your unique circumstances at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293)
By John Fulweiler