Chief Engineer Freed after Striking Plea Deal

Dejan Vodopic, a Croatian citizen and M/V Bellavia cargo ship’s chief engineer, who was indefinitely held by United States officials for almost a year pending an investigation into environmental violations, has through his legal representatives Arent Fox LLP negotiated a plea deal that includes a probationary sentence and a fine of USD 15,000 on one count of a conspiracy for failure to report a hazardous condition.

In October 2013, Dejan Vodopic was accused of discharging oil into the Pacific Ocean in violation of international maritime law. As a result, Vodopic and 11 other crew members were held in the United States pursuant to a security agreement between the operator of the M/V Bellavia and the U.S. Government.

The agreement provided for the release of the vessel in exchange for the indefinite detention of the crew members. Vodopic and the other crew members were never consulted or shown the agreement.

“Dejan and the rest of the crew were held without due process rights,” said Michael Zweiback, a former Assistant US Attorney, who led a team from Arent Fox.

“A contract between their company and the United States Coast Guard allowed the United States Attorneys’ Office to indefinitely detain the crew and prevent them from departing the country. As a result, they had no rights under the material witness statutes defined under the United States Criminal Code because unlike in almost every other criminal case, the government does not designate these individuals as material witnesses in ship-based environmental cases.”

The US government had been seeking a prison sentence for Vodopic after accusing him of pumping fuel out of a tank that had been compromised during a shipping accident in the Panama Canal. The government initially sought two counts against Vodopic for failing to maintain an accurate record book, and making false statements.

The United States District Court for the Central District of California ultimately accepted the plea agreement, imposed a probationary sentence, and, in an unusual step, released Vodopic immediately so that he could depart for his home country of Slovenia.

Earlier this year, the German operator of the M/V Bellavia, Herm. Dauelsberg GmbH & Co. KG., paid a USD 1.25 million fine for the alleged violations of failure to report a hazardous condition and failure to maintain an accurate oil record book, USD 500,000 of which was paid to four whistleblowers. Captain Mitar Miseljic pled guilty to a conspiracy to defraud the United States and is awaiting sentencing.

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