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Strip-search lawsuit exposes paradox of cruise ship passenger rights

A teenage girl is suing Carnival Cruise Lines and three of its employees, claiming she was interrogated, strip-searched and forced to urinate under the employees’ observation during a cruise last year.

The alleged incident is not only another potential black eye for the industry but also raises the question of what rights passengers have when at sea.

The case in question involves an 18-year-old girl, identified only as “J.G.,” who sailed on the Carnival Sensation with her family last April. After a stop in Nassau, Bahamas, security guards detained the then-17-year-old girl on suspicion of possessing marijuana.

According to the complaint, the agents “threatened, coerced and required J.G. to remove her panties, lift her dress to her waist and expose her nakedness to all agents in the cabin.”

She was then allegedly forced to urinate in front of employees, who also requested she remove a tampon. J.G. claims she was subjected to a genital cavity search before being booked and escorted off the ship. The suit alleges that J.G. was placed in an adult cell in the Bahamas and subsequently assaulted.

The cruise line vigorously disputes J.G.'s claim that she was interrogated, strip-searched and subjected to a cavity search. “Carnival does not typically comment on pending litigation but feels compelled to do so given the far-fetched claims made in this lawsuit,” spokesman Vance Gulliksen told msnbc.com.

“The claim that the plaintiff was strip searched is patently false and obviously made in retaliation for the cruise line having disembarked the plaintiff and her mother part-way through the voyage in Nassau where the plaintiff was taken into custody by the Bahamian police.”

Specific allegations aside, the case highlights the murky nature of jurisdiction and passenger rights on the high seas. According to legal experts, U.S. passengers are protected by U.S. laws but also subject to international maritime laws and the legally-binding contracts of their passenger tickets.

“When you go on a cruise ship, you are in the territory of the flag of the country the ship is registered in,” said Miami-based maritime attorney Michael Winkleman of Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman. “But where you have a possible criminal case, different types of intervening jurisdictions can apply — the Coast Guard, the FBI — although the only real authority on the ship is the cruise line itself.”

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And those tickets/contracts do give cruise lines the authority to search guests and their belongings, confiscate prohibited items and deny boarding or reboarding to passengers who refuse to comply.

As the Carnival contract states, “All Guests agree Carnival has, at all times with or without notice, the right to enter and search Guest's stateroom, personal safe or storage spaces, or to search or screen any Guest, and/or personal effects, at any location, to ensure compliance with any of the restrictions set forth in this agreement.”

“You’re implicitly agreeing to give them a certain authority over you,” said Winkleman, “but the question is what’s reasonable?”

“The short answer is that, irrespective of the law of the flag, cruise lines have a responsibility to treat passengers reasonably,” said maritime lawyer Jim Walker of Walker & O’Neill in Miami. “My view is that it’s unreasonable to subject a minor to any of the conduct that’s alleged in this incident.”

Furthermore, passengers maintain the right to object to any type of search or interrogation, he says, although there are consequences for doing so, which include refusing passengers boarding and bringing in local authorities.

While neither Winkleman nor Walker are involved in the current litigation, both suggest that no cruise line operates under the premise that it has the right to conduct strip and cavity searches of passengers. Rather, they say, such incidents arise from the gray area of conflicting jurisdictions and the multi-cultural environment that constitutes the typical cruise.

In fact, since all but a handful of cruise ships sail under foreign flags, the majority of onboard personnel are from foreign countries. Along with waiters, housekeepers and maintenance crews, security agents are often recruited during job fairs, conducted both in the U.S. and overseas and by both the cruise lines themselves and third-party companies.

The nationality of the employees in the current case — Mayank Thapa, a security agent; Redentor Yuzon, an assistant housekeeping manager, and a female employee referred to only as “Leticia” — is not stated in the complaint. The suit cites the case’s “diversity of citizenship” as one reason for filing in U.S. District Court.

“When you have a security agent from a country outside the U.S. that doesn’t recognize these types of legal protections, they’re going to act according to their own cultural values and beliefs,” Walker said. “That’s where you have the collision between the theoretical rights Americans enjoy and the actual circumstances that are presented on board a ship. That’s why these things happen.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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