The Scripps Institution of Oceanography vessel seized by Customs agents in Honolulu last week under the “zero tolerance” anti-drug policy is on its way again, but Scripps is left holding a $20,000 bill for legal and staff fees and faces the prospect of a hefty fine or even forfeiture of the research ship.
After finding 1 gram of marijuana aboard the Thomas Washington last Monday, U. S. Customs Service inspectors seized the ship. Scripps has already spent nearly $10,000 in legal and overtime staff fees to free the research vessel, a spokesman said.
Customs returned the ship to Scripps’ custody Thursday. It left port Saturday for a monthlong expedition in the central Pacific to study the oceans’ role in absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, believed to be the principal culprit in the greenhouse effect.
Discussing the Fine
Tom Collins, associate director for administration at Scripps, said Monday that the possibility of a fine, which could be imposed after Customs officials complete their investigation, “is a point of some discussion” because Customs and Scripps officials cannot agree on what the ship is worth. Customs could levy a fine based on some percentage of the vessel’s value.
Customs officials have indicated that they consider the value of the ship to be equal to its replacement value, between $20 million and $30 million, Collins said. Scripps officials, however, maintain that the fine should be based only on the ship’s present worth, which a private ship broker has estimated to be under $1 million.
The ship, which is owned by the Navy but operated by Scripps, was built in 1965, Collins said.
Returning from Pago Pago in American Samoa, the Thomas Washington was seized after federal agents using drug-sniffing dogs said they found 1 gram of marijuana hidden in the berth of Kenneth G. Racca Jr., 28, of San Diego.
Racca pleaded guilty in federal court in Honolulu last Friday to a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana and was fined $1,000, plus $350 in additional charges, according to Customs spokesman Art Morgan.
Judy Turnbaugh, the zero tolerance ombudsman for the Customs Service in Washington, said: “The case is under investigation. They must file a petition, and then we will make a determination of what penalty is appropriate. It could be any percentage (of the value of the ship) that we deem that they are negligent.
“Normally, we levy a fine based on the domestic value of a ship (conveying illegal drugs),” she said. “A marine surveyor would appraise the ship.”
While conducting routine customs inspections in San Diego, Customs officials in May seized a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research vessel after inspectors found a trace of marijuana in a crewman’s stateroom. Two months later the Treasury Department, which has authority over Customs, decided not to fine Woods Hole after concluding it had taken reasonable precautions to deter the violation that prompted the seizure.