The idea of a warrantless search does sound like a recent homeland security measure, but the Coast Guard’s authority actually dates back to the enactment of a federal statute (14 U.S.C. § 89) in 1949. The statute authorizes the Coast Guard to ’make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction,’ all without a warrant and without probable cause or suspicion that a crime has been committed. And, this authority has been extended to the local harbor police as well.
The courts have enforced the statute and held that a brief, random stop of a vessel does not violate the operator’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. This treatment differs from the search of a vehicle, but the Supreme Court noted that ’important factual differences between vessels located in waters offering ready access to the open sea and automobiles on principal thoroughfares’ justify the application of a less restrictive rule for vessel searches.
Prior to 9/11, the Coast Guard took advantage of this inspection authority for purposes ranging from safety inspections to sobriety checks to drug enforcement. In recent years, they have added homeland security to their mission and the nature and frequency of these inspections has probably changed. However, the Coast Guardsmen who conduct the inspections are invariably polite and professional, and you can expect to be on your way quickly and with very little inconvenience.
Here in Southern California, anyone who has traveled by boat to a large waterfront event such as a fireworks display or the Long Beach Grand Prix has probably been subjected to a Coast Guard stop. Your own professionalism during the course of the inspection will be greatly appreciated by the Coast Guard and it will help to minimize your inconvenience. Remember – this is recreational boating – you’re not supposed to be in a hurry!