Criminal Defense

Coast Guard Arrests Guy Just Trying to Walk to London in a Floating Hamster Wheel

Seems seaworthy to me (image: Flagler County (FL) Sheriff's Office via Facebook)

Reza Baluchi escaped a dictatorship in Iran only to face another kind of tyranny in the United States, supposedly the home of the free: the authorities refuse to allow him to walk across the Atlantic in a giant floating hamster wheel.

According to the criminal complaint, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Valiant was out driving around the Atlantic Ocean on August 26 when officers spotted a vessel they believed might be unsafe. The complaint doesn’t make clear why they believed this, apart from saying the vessel was “afloat [only] as a result of wiring and buoys.” (Coast Guard cutters, evidently, are made of something fancier.) The vessel was occupied by “one male passenger, later identified as BALUCHI.”

Again the defendant’s name is printed in ALL CAPS, a practice about which I recently complained (see “‘ChiefsAholic’ Indicted for Robbing Banks to Fund ChiefAholism” (Aug. 18, 2023)) and yet continues to occur. Here, they also do this with the name of the cutter (“the USCG Cutter VALIANT”), and it’s not charged with anything, so I don’t know what the rule is here. We’re just randomly putting names in all caps, I guess, so, fine.

When the cutter arrived at the vessel’s location, BALUCHI was just minding his own business, so far as I can tell. True, he happened to be 70 nautical miles east of Tybee Island, GEORGIA, at the time. This put him near—well, it didn’t put him “near” anything, really. He was just 70 miles out there in the Atlantic. What was he doing? Traveling. He “advised USCG officers his intended destination was London, England.” And he was already two percent of the way there.

But according to the complaint, the officers “determined BALUCHI was conducting a manifestly unsafe voyage,” and decided to put a stop to it. When they approached him, he threatened to commit suicide if they didn’t leave him alone, and also (falsely) claimed to have a bomb. Over the next two days, the Coast Guard repeatedly tried to get him out of the hamster wheel (sorry, “HydroPod”), while also attempting to “deliver food, water, and predictions of the incoming hurricane.” Finally, on August 29, maybe because of those hurricane predictions, BALUCHI agreed to disembark. He has since been charged with two crimes.

So what exactly did he do wrong?

Let’s start with the question of why the U.S. government even has jurisdiction to bother someone who’s just out paddling around the high seas. If BALUCHI was 70 miles offshore, he was well outside the 12-mile U.S. territorial limit. He was even outside the “contiguous zone,” which reaches 24 miles out and in which the U.S. can enforce certain laws like customs and immigration. So what business did the Coast Guard have bothering him out there? Well, none, in my view, but it did have jurisdiction to act.

That’s because even though 70 miles is well outside territorial waters, BALUCHI was still within the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” And that’s because U.S. law extends that jurisdiction to any vessel that belongs to a U.S. citizen, even a vessel on the “high seas,” as long as it’s not within any other country’s jurisdiction. 18 U.S.C. § 7. That principle even extends, to my amusement, to any space vessel under U.S. registry from the moment the doors are closed for launch until the moment “one such door is opened on Earth for disembarkation….” 18 U.S.C. § 7(6). Yeah, so don’t do any crimes in flight, Neil ARMSTRONG.

It also extends, to my much greater amusement, to “[a]ny island, rock, or key containing deposits of guano [bird excrement], which may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States,” as a result of the Guano Islands Act of 1856. But then you know all about that one, or you should. See Kevin Underhill, “The Guano Islands Act,” Washington Post (July 8, 2014).

Anyway, according to the complaint, Baluchi (no more all caps, I hate it) was already subject to something called a “Captain of the Port Order” that limited his ability to make such “voyages.” This is because it is the fourth time he has tried a lengthy voyage in a “similar homemade vessel.” The complaint says his wheel (or a similar contraption) has previously been deemed a “manifestly unsafe vessel within the meaning of Title 46 of the United States Code, and Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations….” This probably refers to a statute that allows officials to intervene if they see a vessel that is “unsafe” and “creates an especially hazardous condition….” 46 U.S.C. § 4308 (Termination of unsafe operation); see also 33 C.F.R. § 177.07 (defining “unsafe condition” to include a boat “designated manifestly unsafe … due to” poor design, a lack of safety equipment, etc.).

Having already been deemed subject to one of these orders, Baluchi could then be charged for violating it. That is, strictly speaking he wasn’t charged for operating an unsafe vessel, he was charged for violating the “Captain of the Port Order” that had deemed it unsafe. 46 U.S.C. § 70036(b)(1). He was also charged with “obstruction of boarding,” under a statute that makes it a crime “to knowingly fail to obey an order by an authorized Federal law enforcement officer to heave to that vessel.” 18 U.S.C. § 2237(a)(2)(A). At one point, the complaint actually refers to this crime as “failure to heave,” which is way better than “obstruction of boarding,” so we’re using that now.

I guess failing to heave is basically the same as refusing to pull over if the highway patrol orders it. Both are crimes. If the officer didn’t have a valid reason to give that order, that might be the basis for a Fourth Amendment claim, or a reason to exclude evidence found during the stop, but I doubt it would be a defense to the crime of not stopping. Plus, if you’re driving around in something … unusual and potentially unsafe, or apparently unregistered, a court would almost certainly find that the stop was valid for that reason alone, even if otherwise questionable. See, e.g., “It Is Not Illegal to Drive With an Axe Embedded in the Roof of Your Car” (July 26, 2017) (but you do need license plates and doors). This would probably also apply to Baluchi’s failure to heave, although in this case the only possible danger was to the driver himself (and whatever shark ended up eating him and his wires and buoys).

But I’m less certain that the other charge should stick. The real crime there, of course, is failing to hyphenate “Captain-of-the-Port Order,” and I hereby charge the Coast Guard with that offense. But I’m also a little concerned about an order that enjoins somebody from doing something that seems to endanger only himself (and the shark). He wasn’t driving an unsafe vehicle on the road, potentially threatening others; he was just bobbing around out on the high seas. Why can’t he do that? It’s not illegal to walk to London. He just happened to start walking in Georgia.

They are, of course, saving his life, and that’s a good thing generally speaking. But people do have a right to take risks. People are apparently free to climb Everest, or try to, anyway. And we didn’t order people to get vaccinated, even though the risk (from COVID) was great and not limited to the vaccinophobe personally. Can’t a guy try to walk across the ocean if he wants to, even if he’ll never be heard from again?

And Baluchi really wants to do this. This was at least his fourth attempt to walk somewhere this way during a decade of trying. “I’ve been five years, like, do this thing,” he said when the Coast Guard stopped him in 2016. “They stop me every time, they save my life. I don’t no need it, save my life. I don’t no need it.” Why do it? “You must follow your dream,” he said in a documentary about his attempt to walk to Bermuda in a bubble. “If you drive a boat, nobody cares. Bubble, nobody did before.” To add insult to prevention of injury, the Coast Guard sank that vessel, claiming it was a “hazard to navigation.” “They shot, they sink my bubble,” he said in the documentary. “No more bubble I have.” This seems wrong to me.

Don’t get me wrong—he should stop doing this, because it seems pretty clear that his various watercraft are unqualified for these journeys, and that he is too. According to the documentary, the Coast Guard was alerted to his 2016 attempt by “a concerned boater” who called to say “there was a man in a bubble [who] was lost and was asking for directions to Bermuda.” Man, if you have to stop and ask somebody for directions to Bermuda, I’m thinking you might have even more trouble finding London. Still, it’s a free country, or free-ish, anyway. He should have the right to try.