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8th Circuit tosses charges from duck boat disaster

Scott Lauck//June 1, 2023

8th Circuit tosses charges from duck boat disaster

Scott Lauck//June 1, 2023

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 30 that the federal government lacked jurisdiction to bring criminal charges against three men accused of manslaughter for the fatal sinking of a duck boat on Table Rock Lake.

The 2-1 ruling affirms an earlier order of a federal judge in Missouri to dismiss the charges against the boat’s captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, and two managers, Charles V. Baltzell and Curtis P. Lanham. Seventeen people died when the boat that capsized during a storm in July 2018.

The three men had been charged under the federal “seaman’s manslaughter” statute. Judge Jane Kelly wrote for the majority that the law fell under federal courts’ admiralty jurisdiction, which covers “navigable” waters related to commercial shipping. A 1983 8th Circuit ruling held that Table Rock Lake primarily supports recreation, so alleged crimes on the lake fell outside federal jurisdiction.

“We decline the government’s invitation to expand the scope of a criminal statute without direction from Congress, and we conclude that the scope of [the manslaughter law] is defined by the reach of federal admiralty jurisdiction,” Kelly wrote.

Judge L. Steven Grasz concurred, adding in a separate opinion that a contrary reason would allow federal prosecutors to go after “an owner of a canoe or small fishing boat whose ordinary negligence results in a death on a farm pond in Nebraska.”

Judge Ralph R. Erickson agreed that Table Rock is not a “navigable” lake under federal law, but he argued that the manslaughter statute was passed under Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce and that the federal courts had jurisdiction to hears such cases.

The case is U.S. v. McKee et al., 20-3671.

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