I was recently stopped by the Coast Guard after leaving a waterfront restaurant in my boat. I was given a sobriety test by a member of the Coast Guard crew, while others searched my boat from bow to stern while performing a “safety inspection.” 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 they 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?
Based on our reader’s description of the incident, it sounds like he cooperated with the Coast Guard during their inspection notwithstanding his concern over the lack of a warrant. He did the right thing. Federal law expressly authorizes the search that he was subjected to, and the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the search does not violate our 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 car, 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 of course added homeland security to their mission, and the nature and frequency of these inspections has probably changed. However, the Coast Guard 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 firework 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 delay and inconvenience. Remember – this is recreational boating and you’re not in a hurry!
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.