After launching air and boat crews from Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey to conduct a 5 1/2-hour, 638-square nautical mile search, the Coast Guard is calling attention to the dangers and risks of hoax distress calls.
Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service New York received a distress call Monday at approximately 4:20 p.m. from the crew of the yacht Blind Date stating the vessel suffered an explosion and all 21 people reportedly aboard the yacht had abandoned ship into liferafts. (release with audio here)
The search took place 17 nautical miles east of Sandy Hook and involved two Coast Guard boat crews, four Coast Guard aircraft crews, response units from New York City Police Department, Fire Department of New York City, New Jersey State Police, and Nassau County Police Department. Good Samaritan boats also participated in the search. Overall, more than 200 first responders participated in the effort.
Total aircraft and boat costs for the search are estimated at more than $318,000. That amount does not include the cost of triage and amublance stations which were stood up along the shoreline.
In addition to cost impact, the Coast Guard is also emphasizing the impact on operations.
"False distress calls like this tie up valuable assets like helicopters and boats, and put our crews at risk every time since we take every distress call seriously," said Rear Admiral Dan Abel, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District. "And they impede the ability of first responders like the Coast Guard and our partners to respond to real distresses where real lives may be in genuine peril."
Making a false distress call is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.
"In the Northeast alone, our crews respond to more than 6,000 search and rescue cases per year and save more than 350 lives," said Lt. Joe Klinker, 1st Coast Guard District Public Affairs Officer. "We've been performing these missions for 200 years, our crews are constantly busy, and their mission is dangerous. That's why we have the tools in place to prosecute hoax offenders."
A list of recent prosecutions are available below.
The Coast Guard is offering a reward of up to $3,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person responsible for making the false distress call. Anyone with information regarding false distress calls is encouraged to anonymously contact the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service at 646-872-5774 or 212-668-7048.
United States v. Flores, No. 09-00161 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 23, 2009) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to thirty-six (36) months supervised release, and ordered to pay $112,735.70 in restitution)
United States v. Johnson, No. 04-00117 (W.D. Mich. Jan. 27, 2005) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to twenty-four (24) months imprisonment, and ordered to pay $56,958.30 in restitution)
United States v. Baldwin, No. 03-05356 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 5, 2004) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to twelve (12) months and one (1) day imprisonment followed by thirty-six (36) months of supervised release, and ordered to pay $194,587.70 in restitution)
In United States v. Feener, No. 05-10287 (D. Mass. July 26, 2005), the defendant was charged under 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) for having radioed the Coast Guard from his home on two separate occasions, both times claiming to be the captain of a fishing vessel taking on water. Both of the defendant's calls resulted in futile, hours-long searches and the deployment of Coast Guard air and marine assets. The defendant ultimately pled guilty to sending a false distress message in violation of 14 U.S.C. § 88(c); he was sentenced to eighteen (18) months imprisonment, to be followed by thirty-six (36) months supervised release, and was ordered to pay $82,004.00 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The defendant in United States. v. D'Addieco, No. 09-10087 (D. Mass. Jan. 21, 2010), was charged under 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) for having called 911 to falsely report, under a pseudonym, that he was onboard a non-existent vessel that was sinking in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, with four passengers onboard. The defendant pled guilty to making a false distress call in violation of 14 U.S.C. § 88(c); he was sentenced to three (3) months imprisonment, to be followed by twenty-four (24) months supervised release, and was ordered to pay $56,459.70 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard.