PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. -

For decades, crimes on cruise ships that were not serious enough for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute often fell between the cracks of jurisdictional divides.

But that could be about to change for ships using Port Canaveral in Brevard County.

Prompted by concerns from Port Canaveral Police Chief Joseph Hellebrand, new Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer said Tuesday he is willing to exercise the State of Florida’s jurisdiction to crimes that occur on ships when they are in waters beyond Florida’s three-mile limit.

The decision was announced as KSAT's sister station, WKMG-TV, has been revealing dozens of crimes on cruise ships not being prosecuted – including one child molestation that Disney Cruise Line did not report to local authorities until 16 hours after it occurred in port on the Disney Dream on Aug. 5.

Disney Cruise Line, or DCL, failed to report the crime until Aug. 6 even though it began investigating the “inappropriate sexual act” 1 hour and 40 minutes prior to leaving port the previous day. In that time, a security officer obtained a statement from the 11-year-old victim, corroborated her account by viewing surveillance video and identified a suspect, according to a confidential security incident report obtained by WKMG-TV.

Yet, DCL did not immediately report the crime, as it claims it is required to do.
The video, also obtained and aired by WKMG-TV on Monday, “sickened me,” said state attorney Archer. “That man should have been walked off in handcuffs and been sitting in … jail in Brevard County.”

Instead, the 33-year-old dining room server was questioned by Bahamian police on Aug. 7, admitted touching the girl’s breast, and was then sent home on a Disney-paid flight to India after the victim’s grandmother decided she did not want to prosecute. The Bahamas could take jurisdiction because the Dream is flagged in the Bahamas.

But Archer said the decision to prosecute that serious a crime in Florida rests with a prosecutor, not a grandmother.

“We have to look out for the larger interests that are at stake. Are we going to allow someone like that to do that to another family?” Archer asked.

Based on what he saw on WKMG-TV, Archer said at least two crimes may have occurred in his jurisdiction: false imprisonment, as the suspect cornered the child in the elevator, which he prevented from moving by blocking the door as he appeared to molest her; and lewd or lascivious molestation on a child under 12, a felony that could have produced a life sentence.

“This is a serious case. This is a case that should have been brought to us at some point,” Archer said.

Disney Cruise Line said it “took proper action.”

Port Canaveral’s chief said his department should have been notified immediately on Aug. 5, but was not contacted until Aug. 6 and then, by the time their detective went to the ship to investigate when it returned Aug. 10, the suspect was gone.

“We would want to investigate that crime because it occurred here, regardless of whether somebody else took over that investigation,” chief Hellebrand said.

Hellebrand could not recall the incident until WKMG-TV began inquiring about it last week, in part because it was never documented it in an agency police report.

But even when crimes are reported, Hellebrand said overlapping jurisdictional issues can prevent suspects from being fully investigated or prosecuted.

“People aren't being brought to justice and we need to do something about it,” said Hellebrand, explaining why he raised the issue with Archer, who heads the 18th Judicial Circuit that includes Brevard and Seminole counties.

Archer, relying on a Florida Supreme Court ruling, said he is willing to file charges involving crimes occurring anywhere on the sea, as long as the ships sail from Brevard and federal authorities decline to investigate or prosecute.

“We're just setting those protocols up right now and I think the next case that comes down the pike will be one that we can look at,” said Archer.

Port Canaveral police said their jurisdiction extends to 1,000 feet from port land. The state has jurisdiction out to three miles, an area investigated by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office alone or in conjunction with port police through a mutual aid agreement.

Once the ship is more than 3 miles from the coast, the FBI typically investigates incidents that involve U.S. citizens.

But the country where a ship is flagged can claim jurisdiction wherever the ship may be, even in a U.S. port.

There are also often overlapping jurisdictional issues in cruise crimes, depending on the nationalities of the parties involved, the location of the ship, the ports its departs from and arrives at, and the country whose flag it sails under.

But, in 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the state can prosecute crimes occurring beyond the state’s three-mile limit, as long as federal authorities decline. In Stepansky v. State, the court ruled Florida’s “special maritime jurisdiction” extends anywhere a crime occurs on a ship, as long as most of the paying passengers boarded and planned to disembark from a Florida port.

Hellebrand said this ruling has hardly ever been put to use, but now he plans to find cases for port police to refer to the state attorney for charges.