If you are involved in an accident, don’t expect to be read your rights

You have the right to remain silent.” Those are words you probably won’t hear from the U.S. Coast Guard during the investigation of an incident.

The Coast Guard, as a federal law enforcement agency, has authority to “Mirandize” (read the rights to) people they are investigating, but it rarely does so. To understand why mariners are generally not read their rights, one must first understand how the Coast Guard interacts with other law enforcement agencies, the purpose of Coast Guard investigations, and the application of Miranda warnings.

Mariners may not realize that the reports generated as a result of Coast Guard investigations can and will be given to other law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, state departments of fish and game or wildlife, and other state agencies that are interested in pursuing criminal indictments or additional civil penalties against the mariner and/or maritime company. One senior Coast Guard investigator indicated that other federal agencies appreciate having the Coast Guard do the investigations because mariners are used to working with Coast Guard personnel and tend to “clam up” when, say, an FBI agent starts asking questions. The Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Manual (available online at the Coast Guard website) encourages such inter-agency sharing of information.

The Coast Guard is usually the lead investigating agency after a marine incident. Even in cases where the FBI or EPA will likely pursue criminal indictments, the Coast Guard will be the agency to investigate first. Coast Guard personnel will arrive on the scene, often in civilian clothes, and with full federal subpoena powers, they will begin asking questions and collecting documents.

The Marine Safety Manual offers specific guidance on how Coast Guard investigators are to conduct an investigation. The manual advises investigators to act professionally and with the highest ethical standards, be highly cognizant of a mariner’s rights, and take accurate and detailed notes after any interviews.

Investigators are advised not to take notes during the interview, as this may cause the subject anxiety. Arriving on-scene in civilian clothes is another effort to put mariners at ease and to get them to talk. Many Marine Safety Offices adhere to this practice.

Investigators are required to show identification and to announce the type of investigation being conducted, and mariners are well advised to ask politely to see such identification before answering any questions. Investigators are not required to read a mariner his or her rights unless criminal activity is suspected. If criminal activity is suspected, the investigating officer may ask the Coast Guard’s Investigative Service, a group of Coast Guard special agents who handle criminal cases, to assist in the investigation. Coast Guard investigators also can get assistance and guidance from Coast Guard lawyers who are stationed at various district offices.

Some incidents are difficult to classify as strictly civil incidents. Recent state and federal legislation has changed some “environmental accidents” into “environmental crimes.” That adds the potential for criminal fines and incarceration to all the other forms of civil liabilities that already exist for these events. These penalties are in addition to any cleanup and repair costs.

There are two types of Coast Guard investigations: Part 4 and Part 5, corresponding to respective sections of 46 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations). A Part 4 investigation is a casualty investigation and usually is done first.

The Coast Guard is trying to determine what happened, and a mariner usually has no right to remain silent or to wait until counsel arrives before answering questions. A gray area is created, however, when answers to a Part 4 investigation may indicate criminal activity or when certain answers lead the investigator to ask additional questions he or she might not otherwise have known to ask and the subject mariner has not been read his or her rights.

At the first hint that criminal activity may have occurred, the investigator is supposed to stop and Mirandize the subject. A mariner generally has little right to delay answering Part 4 questions while waiting for an attorney. Undue delay may be construed as hampering the investigation.

By Professional Mariner Staff