April 16, 2012

Don't Whistle at Whales

Marine biologist faces twenty years in federal prison for allegedly lying to federal prosecutors investigating the incident, in which the captain and a crew-member of a whale-watching excursion whistled at a humpback whale to encourage it to stick around their boats. The "lying" appears to have consisted of furnishing the feds with an excerpted video of the whistling rather than the total raw footage. A five-year investigation of all of her confiscated computers, devices, and files managed to turn up no basis for an actual charge of "whale harassment." She is, as she says, facing punishment for an effective absurdity: lying about her involvement in an event that didn't happen.

(The investigation was sparked by the captain's wife, who asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for clarification as to whether whistling was permitted under the law. Oops. Another mistake: don't ask the government for advice about whether or not you're complying with the law. Even if you are, they can figure out something to charge you with, and they will.)

Now I suppose there's a legitimate point in trying to prevent flagrant abuse of marine life, though whistling seems fairly benign. But surely once it's established that the underlying crime did not occur (e.g. that the whistling did not rise to the level of chargeable harassment) that should be the end of it. The government has no business concerning itself with inadvertent "lying" about the non-event. Yet in our increasingly dystopian system of criminal justice, the process is itself the punishment. Unfortunate innocents become ensnared in a complex network of nested "meta-crimes" with only a distant relation to anything that might have been intended or done. Endless and forever. Your only chance is to sit tight and hope they don't notice you. Good luck out there.

Posted by Dr. Frank at April 16, 2012 04:01 PM

My job is educating people about marine life, & I frequently mention the Marine Mammal Protection Act of '72 when talking about human/animal interaction. I don't know the fine points of the Act, but whistling sure doesn't seem like harassment and apparently doesn't qualify as such. If her "lie" consisted merely of omission (giving the feds just a portion of her video rather than the whole thing), then this does indeed seem absurd. If she lied under oath, that's a bit different because it's perjury, which is a felony. It does seem ludicrous to be punished for not being super-forthcoming with evidence that could damn you. Since when is it the law that you have to aid your prosecutors by furnishing them with evidence?

Posted by: Pete at April 16, 2012 04:28 PM

Wow, that's one whale of a tail there. What an unfortunate tuna events for her. I suppose the video is what sealed the deal though. I guess her legal team wasn't the best bunch of sharks. In the end, they weren't convinced that her acts were innocent and not done on porpoise.

Posted by: Zaphod at April 16, 2012 06:38 PM