When Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster sent out distress flares to celebrate their friend’s wedding, they probably didn’t expect to mobilize the U.S. Coast Guard.
Philips, 31, and Foster, 33, were guests at a friend’s wedding in Warwick, Rhode Island in June 2020, when investigators say the pair decided to go out to sea and light flares for the amusement of the other wedding guests.
With a borrowed flare gun, the two set out from Payne’s Dock in a small boat. They reportedly set off three red flares, which federal prosecutors would later note is internationally “understood to convey that a vessel or its crew is in distress or in need of assistance.”
In a move they would come to regret, the pair took photos and videos while they loaded and fired the flares into the night. Foster posted the images to his Instagram story.
According to the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office, observers who spotted the distress flares alerted the New Shoreham harbormaster, who in turn contacted the Coast Guard.
The harbormaster and a police officer reportedly searched the shoreline and the water for an hour and a half for signs of a vessel in distress. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard dispatched a rescue boat and two helicopters, which scrambled to respond to an emergency that wasn’t happening, scanning the waters for victims who did not exist.
At the very least, the wedding guests were able to see the flares, as the two had hoped.
The Government Filed a Complaint
“At least one of the two [Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster] knew at the time that the flares were a maritime distress signal, and both understood that it was improper to use them as they did,” federal prosecutors argued.
In the original complaint the government filed, prosecutors hoped to force Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster to cover the full cost of the needless search and rescue operation — a whopping $103,948, with an additional $10,000 fine, for “knowingly and willfully communicat[ing] a false distress message to the Coast Guard.”
Under U.S. maritime law, communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard — including using the word “mayday” on the radio, or lighting off distress flares without cause — is a felony.
The law stipulates that such an offense is “punishable by up to ten years in prison, a criminal fine of up to $250,000, a civil fine of up to $10,000, and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of any search effort resulting from the false signal.”
Still, the complaint against the men the U.S. Attorney’s office chose to file was civil, not criminal.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced that they had reached a settlement with lawyers for Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster. Under the agreement, the men will pay $5,000 each, after which the civil complaint will be dropped.
In announcing the settlement, government attorneys noted that both Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster made sworn statements that they did not have the money to pay the original $10,000 fine — much less the $103,948 in restitution.
An Ongoing Issue
Perry Phillips and Benjamin Foster are not the first to deploy emergency flares in celebration. False flares, as the Coast Guard calls them, are reportedly a serious issue around Independence Day, when fireworks displays are common.
“Every Fourth of July, Coast Guard personnel receive and respond to numerous false flare sighting reports,” Lt. Cmdr. Lisa Hatland has said. “It can be quite challenging to distinguish emergencies from those celebrating, and each report requires considerable man-power to determine exactly where the flare originated and whether or not someone needs help there.”