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United States v. Vastardis

United States District Court, D. Delaware

November 12, 2019



         Before me is Defendants' Motion to Suppress evidence and statements by Nikolaos Vastardis. (D.I. 46). The Parties have briefed the issues. (D.I. 49, 59, 60, 77, 78). Because I find that the Fourth Amendment was not violated, I will deny Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendants are charged in a four-count indictment with crimes related to environmental violations committed on board the M/T Evridiki. (See D.I. 16). The M/T Evridiki is a Liberian flagged oil tanker, owned by Evridiki Navigation, and operated by Liquimar Tankers Management Services. Large ocean-going vessels like the M/T Evridiki produce a considerable volume of oily waste. The primary types of oily waste are sludge and bilge waste. Sludge is generated when petroleum products are purified for use in the ship's engines. Acceptable methods for disposing of sludge are incineration on board the vessel or offloading at port.

         Bilge waste is a mixture of oil and water that accumulates at the bottom of the ship, also known as, the bilge. Oil accumulates in the bilge as it leaks from machinery on the ship. Bilge waste is collected, stored, and processed on the ship to remove oil from the water before it is dumped overboard. The separation process is completed by a device known as the Oily Water Separator, in conjunction with an Oil Content Monitor. Pursuant to environmental regulations, water can be sent overboard only if it is at or below 15 parts per million of oil. All discharges and internal transfers of bilge waste are recorded in the ship's Oil Record Book.

         On March 10, 2019, the M/T Evridiki arrived in the Delaware Bay. The next day, the United States Coast Guard boarded the vessel to conduct a previously announced Port State Control inspection. The inspection included an examination of the operability of the ship's Oily Water Separator. At that time, Defendant Nikolaos Vastardis served as the M/T Evridiki's Chief Engineer. He oversaw all engine room operations, supervised all engine room crew members, and reported directly to the Captain. He was the individual responsible for the Oily Water Separator and making entries into the Oil Record Book.

         Chief Vastardis conducted operational testing of the Oily Water Separator under the supervision of Coast Guard inspectors. When running the Oily Water Separator with the valves that provided Oily Water Separator-treated bilge wastewater to the Oil Content Meter for sampling in a closed position, the Oil Content Meter registered zero parts per million of oil. When operating the Oily Water Separator in compliance with legal standards, Chief Vastardis was not able to run the system without setting off the alarm in the Oil Content Meter. The alarm indicated that the oil content of the water was in excess of 30 parts per million of oil.

         As a result of the March 11 inspection, the inspector concluded that further inspection of the Oily Water Separator was necessary. Further inspection led to a decision to expand the Port State Control inspection to include MARPOL compliance. The Coast Guard concluded its inspection on March 13, 2019.

         As a result of the inspection, the Coast Guard suspected that the Oily Water Separator on board the Evridiki was likely not capable of separating out oil to meet the legal requirement and cited the M/T Evridiki with more than ten deficiencies. The Coast Guard further suspected that Chief Vastardis knew about the deficiency with the Oily Water Separator and operated it in a manner that resulted in the discharge of bilge wastewater that contained impermissibly high levels of oil. The Coast Guard detained the vessel until the vessel owner provided security authorized by 33 U.S.C. § 1908(e). The Agreement on Security, reached between the government and entity Defendants, required that the company post a bond and included certain other non-monetary conditions, including providing for the crew.

         Chief Vastardis, whose first language is Greek, was interviewed in English by Coast Guard authorities on March 13, 2019. The interview took place in the ship's office and was conducted by Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Studie and Lieutenant Thomas McGuire. Neither CWO Studie nor Lt. McGuire was carrying a weapon. During the interview, the door to the ship's office was closed. The interview was recorded and lasted 29 Vi minutes.


         There are three primary issues raised in Defendants' Motion to Suppress: (1) whether the warrantless search of the M/T Evridiki violated Defendants' Fourth Amendment rights, (2) whether the Coast Guard's questioning of Chief Vastardis resulted in involuntary statements or violated Miranda, and (3) whether the Agreement on Security is unconstitutional.

         1. Search of the M/T Evridiki

         The Coast Guard's search of the M/T Evridiki did not violate Defendants' Fourth Amendment rights. The Coast Guard possesses broad, general authority to board foreign vessels in United States Waters to conduct warrantless safety and document inspections as well as searches, seizures, and arrests. This authority is provided by 14 U.S.C. § 522(a):

The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection and suppression of violations of the laws of the United States. For such purposes, commissioned, warrant, and petty officers may at any time go on board of any vessel subject to the jurisdiction, or to the operation of any law, of the United States, address inquiries to those on board, examine the ship's documents and papers, and examine, inspect, and search the vessel and use all necessary force to compel compliance. When from such inquiries, examination, inspection, or search it appears that a breach of the laws of the United States rendering a person liable to arrest is being, or has been committed, by any person, such person shall be arrested or, if escaping to shore, shall be immediately pursued and arrested on shore, or other lawful and appropriate action shall be taken; or, if it shall appear that a breach of the laws of the United States has been committed so as to render such vessel, or the ...

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