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Legality of Onboard Search Questioned

I was recently stopped by a Coast Guard cutter after leaving a waterfront restaurant in my boat. I was given a sobriety test by one member of the Coast Guard crew, while others searched my boat from bow to stern performing a safety inspection, and the remainder of their crew remained aboard the cutter with their holstered weapons clearly visible. They did not give me an opportunity to consent or object to the search, and they never showed me a search warrant. They were very polite and let us go without incident, but the fact that they simply boarded our boat without a warrant was very disturbing to me. Did they exceed their legal authority? Can the Coast Guard simply stop and search any boat at random? Is this a homeland security thing?
Based on your description of the incident, it sounds like you cooperated with the Coast Guard during its inspection, notwithstanding your concern over the lack of a warrant. You did the right thing. Federal law expressly authorizes the search that you were subjected to, and the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the search does not violate your constitutional rights.

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!

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