Feds hold sailboat hostage for a signature

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The feds say Jeffrey Southworth can have his sailboat back if he promises not to sue. Earlier this year Customs and Border Patrol officers in Puerto Rico seized Southworth’s Catalina 47 because it was carrying 33 boxes of “Cuban” cigars. As most Loose Cannon readers probably are aware, Cuban cigars are banned from the United States and its territories as part of our 53-year-old economic embargo against the island nation.

Problem is, the cigars in question were Dominican fakes, and the officers would have to have been obtuse not to know that when they ordered Southworth to leave his boat in their custody.

Southworth, a cigar aficionado with inexpensive taste, had arrived on Janice Ann from the Dominican Republic in early January. She was seized even though Southworth declared the cigars and explained that, despite crude labeling to the contrary, the stogies were most likely Dominicanos, not Cubanos.

Southworth says he had not slept in 40 hours, having crossed the turbulent Mona Passage, when the officers persuaded him to sign over his boat. Southworth says he thought he was forfeiting the cigars, not the cigars and the boat. The case got media attention, including support from the libertarian Cato Institute, and his appeal was heard recently by CBP officials in Washington, not Puerto Rico.

Remission warranted

“After a careful review of the case record we find a remission of the forfeiture is warranted. Please return the vessel to the petitioner, after waiving all storage charges,” John Connors, chief of the CBP Penalties Branch, said in a letter to CBP-Puerto Rico, adding, “You may share this decision with Customs and Border Patrol officers who processed [this] case.”

That last line is suggestive of a reprimand, a hint that Connors believed the boys in Ponce had been a trifle wrongheaded in their treatment of the visiting sailor from Ohio.

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But Southworth doesn’t have his boat back yet because there was a catch. He must sign a “hold harmless” agreement by June 28, promising not to file a lawsuit against the feds. If he doesn’t sign — and this is truly mind-bending — the Puerto Rico office has promised to go ahead with final forfeiture proceedings, anyway.

So why doesn’t Southworth just sign the agreement and move on, you ask?

For one thing, the Puerto Rico office will not let him inspect the boat before he signs the agreement. He does not know whether Janice Ann has been damaged or even whether she is being stored in the water or on the hard. “The last thing I want to do is take the boat back sight unseen and find it with holes in the hull or, God forbid, cut in half,” Southworth says.

He’s on the list

So he petitioned for permission to have a look at his own boat.

At the risk of sounding impertinent, please be advised that I am willing to sign a hold harmless agreement … but under terms which I think the U.S. government would deem as full disclosure:

1. I am afforded the opportunity to view the vessel (inside and outside) under the supervision of a U.S. CBP official.

2. Reasonable compensation is provided to repair damages (if any), missing property (if any), and a small stipend for travel and lodging expenses incurred by me and my crew.

3. That my name be cleansed within the systems of records maintained by CBP, such as the Automated Targeting System, the Advance Passenger Information System, the Border Crossing Information System and the U.S. CBP TECS.

The last item is important. Southworth, having once been “arrested” by CBP, will find himself on the list to be interrogated whenever he returns to the United States, whether by land, sea or air — forever. It already has started. “I certainly do not want the treatment I received from CBP while flying from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico on Jan. 23, 2013, to become a recurring event,” Southworth wrote in his petition.

He is also asking for help from the Ohio congressional delegation,without much luck. Next week, Loose Cannon may fire a broadside their way just to get their attention.

Attitude problem?

Meanwhile, I’d like to make a point about my original reporting of this story. I had suggested that Southworth’s tale of woe is just one in a long string of complaints from cruisers about their treatment at the hands of Puerto Rico’s officialdom. I suggested it was part of a pattern and evidence of an attitude problem.

As this story is unfolding, nothing has surfaced to contradict that — except the many comments I received from what I assume are readers of Puerto Rican descent. I found one of their points fascinating. Yes, Puerto Rico’s law enforcement is the most corrupt in the United States, they said, but CBP is “your” agency, not ours.

Wow! That kinda confirmed my notions about the attitude problem. Even though the sons and daughters of Puerto Rico manage and staff CBP in Puerto Rico, the CBP is “yours.”

So “we” really are an occupying power, is that right? And maybe that justifies treating Southworth and other gringos passing through Puerto Rico with the kind of special care that only someone with a badge can provide.