Monday, June 21, 2004

MIAMI VICE: And to think it all started over a bag of marshmallows. After a spot security check, a teacher's aide from a Wyoming mountain town got hauled away in handcuffs from Carnival Cruise Line’s Fascination. She spent most of a day behind bars, because her fiance had left an unopened package of marshmallows out in the open last summer at Yellowstone Park – where food storage laws are on the books to thwart bears. Highlighting federal bureaucracy tangled in security concerns, her fine kettle of fish unfolded last Friday in Miami's U.S. District Court. A Wyoming federal court bench warrant alleged the teacher’s aide had failed to pay last summer’s $50 ticket. Her name wound up in a federal database. The feds cited her for "improper food storage at a national park." The woman, who teaches 4-year-olds in a Head Start program, told the court she paid the ticket via credit card because park officials had snagged her camp gear, refusing to return it until the fine was paid. After eyeballing the citation, U.S. Magistrate John J. O'Sullivan agreed her fine had been satisfied. "This ticket has been paid. This woman should not be in custody," the judge said, ordering her freed. When a U.S. attorney protested there might be "some discrepancy" between the woman's story and documents, the judge shushed him pronto, adding "seven hours in jail, I think, is a suitable punishment for leaving marshmallows out at a camp site." The judge then apologized to the woman. U.S. Immigration and Customs cruise ship inspections mostly focus on illegal drugs and other contraband -- not stale marshmellow disputes. Luggage and passenger lists are routinely screened, with heightened attention given to possible terrorist activity since 9/11. Two hours after the judge ordered her freed, the teacher's aide walked out of the courthouse to rejoin her fiancé, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned "FBI, Federal Bureau of Intoxication." As he recalled, the couple and family members had sipped hot chocolate around the campfire when last summer’s trouble started. He added the ticket was in his fiance's name only because her credit card was used to pay the fine. While in custody, the teacher's aide said she was photographed, fingerprinted, and subjected to catcalls from male prisoners to a point where she threw up and cried a lot. The couple was on a four-day Carnival cruise from Miami to Key West, Cozumel and back when the 6:30 a.m. knock for a “random” search came from U.S. Customs. No word on whether the couple enjoyed their cruise.

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