Unlawful Search, Part 3. A Lot of You Wrote Us About Your Own Experiences Being Stopped and Searched for No Apparent Reason. Are These a Violation of Your Fourth Amendment Rights?
By Peter A. Janssen
We have written two stories now about the case of a Lake Erie boat owner whose 23-foot boat was searched by a Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission officer who gave him a citation with a $75 fine for having only four life jackets for the five people on board. The boat owner, Frederick Karash, 37, fought the fine in court, saying the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unwarranted searches without probable cause. The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently heard the case, where Karash was represented by the ACLU.
Last week we asked for your thoughts on the case. Here are some of your replies:
The most succinct comment was from David VanDenburgh, who asked: “Wasn’t the War of 1812 fought over this? Except the searches were conducted by the Brits and the objectors were Yanks. We have met the enemy and they are us.”
David Dieter, wrote he was cruising along the Florida coast at night when he was stopped by the Coast Guard for a safety inspection. “I showed them my Vessel Inspection that less than one week old, but it didn’t matter. We went through the process again. Since my wife and I were making an overnight run along the Florida coast and this inspection woke her up (interrupting her sleep schedule), it actually made the trip less safe. Additionally, as she was half asleep taking the helm so that I could deal with the inspectors, she ended up turning the boat north, which made our trip longer and upset the Coast Guard that we had changed direction.
“Once they were gone, we returned to our southern route and received a call from my dad. He realized that our latest position (SPOT) was north of our previous position and was concerned as to what had happened.
“I fully appreciate having the dedicated members of the Coast Guard and marine police, but don’t appreciate being stopped when they have no reason to expect that something is wrong. They can’t do it for cars, why can they do it for boats?”
Capt. Tim Dunlap, of Queen Anne, Maryland: “Over the years, we have cruised, and at times lived aboard our boats. Every such stop and boarding felt like a personal invasion of our home. We never had anything to hide and always had the appropriate equipment on board. I take my boating seriously and hold a 100T Coast Guard captain’s license. As much respect as I have for the Coast Guard or any other waterborne officers, I have never appreciated being stopped and subjected to what amounts to an unconstitutional search of my home on the water.”
Len Krauss: “What I think is that these stops and searches without probable cause are clear violations of our Fourth Amendment rights. This matter should be addressed once and for all by the U.S. Supreme Court, and not left to resolution on a state-by-state basis. States in particular are prone to decide such matters based on how the political winds are blowing, and not freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”
Wes Dickman from North Carolina: “The Wildlife guys are a pain in the xxxx. They are out for the day, collecting revenue. I witness it all the time on our lake. You’re guaranteed to be stopped if you have kids. They are looking for younger children that must wear a life jacket. No life jacket on – instant ticket. They gave a ticket to a friend of ours and the boat was in a cove at anchor, they were having a family lunch. One of the kids, under age by one year, no life jacket on – instant ticket and revenue for the state.”
Tom Hynes, from Chatsworth, California: “I compete in the annual Newport to Ensenada race, and was stopped for inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard. With all the border crossing and drug activity between our countries I was happy to see the guys doing their job. The men were courteous when I told them their drug-sniffing dog was not welcome on board, and they complied. Overall I have no problem with this activity.”
Pat Ross, of Multihull Dynamics in Pensacola, Florida: “I have been stopped many times under the guise of a Safety Inspection to be delayed and hassled for no reason other than I and my family and friends were simply on the water. While I believe many of these stops are an attempt to monitor illegal activities, specifically related to illicit drug activity, I am not comfortable with accepting this any more than I am for a police officer to decide he needs to search my home just to make sure I am living within the law.
“I do not think any American would sit for this. I believe we should think the same way about our cars or our boats, provided we are behaving with the rules of the road in our cars or boats.
“At the same time, I want to assist law enforcement in controlling drug trafficking; human trafficking, whatever, but an illegal search is a NO GO in my book.”
Greg Dennhardt, from the Lauren Rae: “I completely agree that unwarranted boardings by local officials, like the one in your article, are Fourth Amendment violations. That said, boardings by the Coast Guard would seem to be exempt. It appears that the Coast Guard has unlimited power to board wherever and whenever they do choose. This can be on any river, lake or even oceans.
“Like most boaters, I have been boarded by the Coast Guard. They are always courteous and professional. They even ask for my permission, which is moot because they are boarding in any case.
“The last time I was boarded was on Lake Erie for a safety inspection (I had seen them stopping all vessels cruising just ahead of me and was awaiting my turn). I passed with flying colors, but they did check everything (with the exception of my air horn because the boarding officer said that he had been hearing them sound off all day and couldn’t take even one more toot).
“The ‘excuse’ for such unwarranted boardings is well documented in Coast Guard policy:
“Title 14 section 89 of the United States Code authorizes the U.S. Coast Guard to board vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, any place upon the high seas and upon any waterway over which the United States has jurisdiction, to make inquires, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures and arrests. The U.S. Coast Guard does not require a warrant to conduct search, seizures and arrests over any United States waterway or high seas. The U.S. Coast Guard also has full legal law enforcement power on any land under the control of the Unites States, as needed to complete any mission.
“However, with respect to local law as contained in your article, there clearly is no exemption, implied or otherwise, to the Fourth Amendment and I sincerely hope precedence is set by the Courts to curtail this obvious violation.”
Jim Pauly: “Two years ago we were returning from Bimini and as we left the harbor our engine stopped working. Because we were already in the Gulf Stream we decided to sail home. We sailed for 25 hours with no moon and little wind. Once we got to the Fort Pierce Inlet we called Tow Boat U.S. and they came out and began to tow us into the harbor.
“As we were under tow in the Fort Pierce Inlet the Coast Guard decided to stop and board us for no reason other than they had nothing to do. Prior to their boarding, I explained to them that we had lost our engine and had been sailing for 25 hours without any sleep. I also explained where our slip was and they could come over and take the boat apart.
“They decided to board us anyway and asked me for numerous items that I was thankfully able to produce after looking all over the boat, and after about an hour they decided that two 75-year-old sailors were not a national security threat.
“My reason for reviewing this incident is to agree with the plaintiff that your article talks about. In our case we were under tow, and as I mentioned we are long in the tooth and live about a mile from the Coast Guard station. They could have simply come over to our harbor and then take the boat apart rather than stopping us in the open water with the current in the channel and a number of early morning boats passing by.
“One other item that bothers me greatly is that our Coast Guard uses the same type of combat boots that are used on land that are similar to our other armed services. Rather than use these thick black sole boots that heavily marked up our boat, why can’t they use a shoe or boot that is made for what their primary role is, patrolling the seas?”
We will continue to follow this story as it works its way through the courts. And if you have any further thoughts about it, please write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org