(CN) - Federal law gives the Coast Guard power to decide what conditions must be met for foreign vessels suspected of breaking the law to be released from U.S. ports, a federal judge ruled.
Starting in spring 2011, whistleblowers aboard four foreign ships reported to the Coast Guard the vessels' crews had fudged records to conceal their illegal oil dumping.
The ships operate out of Cyprus, Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands.
After getting tipped off, the Coast Guard ordered Customs to detain three of the ships at the Port of New Orleans and the other at the Port of Mobile, Ala.
Though the Coast Guard is a U.S. military branch it also serves as a regulatory agency.
The ships were held for different time periods, from a few days to three weeks, as the Coast Guard conducted its investigations.
The Coast Guard searched the ships for suspected violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, a federal law that implements an international treaty aimed at heading off intentional and accidental pollutant dumping from vessels.
While the ships languished at port the vessel owners and operators racked up hefty costs-crew wages, port charges, charter fees-lending a sense of urgency to their negotiations with the Coast Guard to get their ships released.
Two of the vessel owners agreed to post a bond of $1.12 million, the other two put up $500,000 to get their ships back out to sea.
The owners also signed security agreements that imposed non-financial conditions related to the Coast Guard's criminal case.
Each agreement required the owners to pay wages, housing and transportation costs and a $60 daily meal allowance to select crew members so the workers could stay in the United States and make court appearances for the government's criminal case.
The Coast Guard showed particular concern with the housing the owner-operators provided for their crews, stating in its agreement with the owner of the M/V Agios Emilianos that "the Travelodge/Travel Best Inn in Kenner, Louisiana is not considered 'reasonable lodging.'"
The deals also required the ship owners to collect the crew members' passports, verify the authenticity of documents seized from their vessels and help the government serve subpoenas on their employees outside the United States.
After their ships were released the owner-operators filed appeals with the Coast Guard over the agreements they signed.
As those appeals went through the administrative process, the owners sued the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. federal court, challenging the security contracts under the Administrative Procedure Act.
The plaintiffs' main argument was that the Coast Guard had illegally required them to "bear the costs of their own prosecution."
Meanwhile, the government's criminal cases proceeded and resulted in guilty pleas from the ship owners and operators for falsifying records to conceal oil dumping in international waters, and fines ranging from $300,000 to $2 million.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sided with the Coast Guard on Friday and found its "decision to require the challenged security agreements is nonjusticiable," or beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts.
"If the posting of a bond was all that the Coast Guard had discretion to require before it must grant departure clearance when a vessel's crew is suspected of having falsified records to conceal the dumping of oil into international waters, then the people who staff, own, and operate cargo vessels could effectively avoid liability for APPS violations with impunity-by simply posting a surety bond and then sailing away-and in so doing, prevent the U.S. government from effectively investigating and prosecuting their offenses," Jackson wrote in the 43-page ruling.