Drug interdiction: The 'search authority' of maritime cops
Multiple courts, in various jurisdictions, have repeatedly decided in favor of random stops to determine compliance with boating safety requirements
The other day I was surfing the web, looking for ideas for my next article when I came across a series of online chat groups which all dealt with the same topic — When can an officer stop and board my boat? Because I often find the opinions of online “legal authorities” amusing, I decided to take a moment to browse the comments.
At first I encountered the expected comments from those who had obviously been on the wrong end of a bad police contact — people complaining about their rights being trampled for no reason, often followed by claims that they would never let another officer check their equipment without a warrant. Next came the advice from well-meaning citizens who agreed that they did not like being “stopped for no reason” but felt that officers where just doing their job and suggested quiet compliance so the officers could finish quickly and be on their way. Finally, there were the “former law enforcement officers” who were quick to inform other readers that the boating officers had “more authority than street cops” and could board your boat whenever they wished.
Was I surprised? No, not really. Like I said earlier, I find these chat boards amusing and generally read them as a momentary escape — not because I expect to learn what a Supreme Court Justice has to say on the topic. But in this instance, I found myself thinking back to a recent case involving a stop made by one of my officers which lead to an arrest for boating under the influence.
While the case appeared routine to the officer involved, the prosecutor saw it differently. After reviewing the report, his first question was, “What was your probable cause for the stop?”
My fellow officer was quick to recite his statutory authority to make such a stop, but the prosecutor was not convinced until our office was able to provide some case law to back up that authority. When I thought about it, I agreed that it was not surprising that a young prosecutor — one who was more accustomed to dealing with traffic cases — would be confused by the claim that maritime officers could somehow be granted an authority so drastically different than that of the average officer.
Here are some court cases to consider — if not necessarily commit to memory — so you have the information someplace in the back of your mind when you need it.
State of Delaware v. Arnold — Superior Court (Sussex) ruled that random inspections of vessels at a public boat ramp, conducted for the purpose of insuring compliance with registration and safety requirements, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. In doing so the court found that these inspections did constitute a search, but lacking a viable alternative the minor intrusion was outweighed by the state’s compelling interest in insuring public safety. Therefore, such a search was reasonable.
U.S. v. Villamonte-Marquez — The Supreme Court held that a statute authorizing custom officials to board any vessel at any time and place — for the purpose of inspecting manifests and other documents — did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court concluded that the significant differences between boating and motor vehicle operation made alternative methods unlikely. Furthermore, the court found that the lack of outwardly visible signs of compliance made brief stops necessary and reasonable.
Schenekl v. State (Texas) — The Texas Court of Appeals determined that a state law allowing officers to make random stops to insure compliance without probable cause or suspicion was constitutional. In reaching this decision the court found that the State’s high interest in promoting recreational water safety could only be promoted to random checks and that the level of intrusion was minimal and therefore reasonable.
State v. Pike (N.C.) — Court ruled that the stop of a vessel to conduct a safety inspection, without any reasonable suspicion or articulable suspicion of criminal activity, was reasonable and did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. Again, the court pointed to the brief nature of the stop and the state’s overwhelming need to insure public safety.
State v. Casal (Fla.) — Florida Supreme Court found that brief stop to check boat’s registration was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Again, the court found that the state’s interests outweighed the defendant’s diminished expectation of privacy.
Therefore, I would offer the following suggestions to assist you in making sure your case does not become the one that changes the court’s opinion.
1.) Although random stops may be authorized, try to establish probable cause whenever possible. Do not think of this as relinquishing your authority or bowing to outside pressure. Think of it as making the strongest case possible from the beginning.
|Back to previous page|