October 25th

Sorry, but when it comes to Coast Guard boardings, you don’t have any rights.

I’m surprised how many boaters don’t know this. The US Coast Guard can board your boat any time they want, and look anywhere they want, without probable cause or a warrant. They can do this on the open sea, or while you’re asleep aboard in your marina at midnight. They can look through your bedsheets, in your lockers, in your bilges, in your jewelry box, or in your pockets. They can do it carrying just their sidearms, or they can do it carrying assault rifles. They can be polite about it or they can be rude, but mostly they’re polite.

If you’re an avid boater you can expect to be boarded every year or two.

I explain this to my guests aboard Condesa, some of whom are lawyers, and I’m met with disbelief: “But that’s a blatant violation of your constitutional rights! They need probable cause, or a warrant from a judge!”

“Not on a boat, my friend, not on a boat.”

All photos courtesy of US Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard Boarding 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, anytime, 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, arrests over any United States Waterway or high seas. The U.S. Coast Guard also have full legal law enforcement power on any land under the control of the United States, as needed to complete any mission.

Sweeping powers. In a paper in the William and Mary Law Review, law scholar Greg Shelton says, “In terms of enforcement power, Coast Guard boarding officers are clearly America's "supercops."”  Another law scholar, Megan Jaye Kight, says, "As such, these provisions comprise what has been accurately characterized as 'one of the most sweeping grants of police authority ever to be written into U.S.  law.'"

If you’d like to know a little more detail about the boarding policy, here’s a longer document, meant for the public, in the Coast Guard’s own words.

And here’s an article by a retired Coast Guard captain and Coast Guard legal counsel. The pull quote kind of says it all: “There are two main ways to board a vessel—either with permission, or without.” 

I’ve been boarded by the Coast Guard five times. They’ve always been very polite, and I’ve never resisted, thus incurring the penalty of ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine. They asked permission to board, but since they were going to board anyway no matter what I said, I said yes.

Once, offshore, the captain of a Coast Guard cutter told me by radio to prepare for a boarding, and ordered me to maintain my course and speed. It was pretty rough, and I was under full sail and solo, so I replied, “How about if I drop my sails and lie ahull? It’s going to be pretty hard for your guys to get aboard right now.”

“Skipper, maintain your course and speed.”

When their inflatable came alongside, it was indeed bouncing all over the place, and they had a tough time just coming alongside, much less getting someone aboard. When the first boarding officer finally made it over the lifelines he slipped on my aft deck—one of those slips where his feet were actually higher than his head before he crashed down—and he landed right on his sidearm. (Did I mention that deck was wet?) I could see tears in his eyes as he suffered through the inspection protocol.

Nobody could have many criticisms for the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue operations. Dedicated Coast Guard personnel rescue us when we’re in trouble and yes, guard our coasts. As I’ll explain in Part 3, the boarding policy isn't their doing. They might not like these boardings either. Entering some strange boat with strange people aboard is fraught with uncertainty and risk, and they’d probably rather be out doing real Coast Guard stuff instead of checking the bilges on a Tayana 37.

A Coast Guard boarding isn’t the end of the world, but guests who don’t know the routine think the boat is being raided, and it certainly shuts down the party. Again, boardings are usually routine and polite.

But sometimes they’re not so polite, as in an episode in Moss Landing a few years ago. The Coast Guard boarded and searched boats in a marina at 10:30 p.m., with assault rifles in hand. Some of the marina tenants were asleep and awakened to boots on their decks. During boardings, many boaters feel threatened or harassed

Often when the Coast Guard boards a vessel at night, they approach with their running lights extinguished, and they seldom answer radio calls. This is scary to most boaters, because who else might be approaching in the middle of the night with no lights? If the Coast Guard is operating in foreign waters where piracy is common, everyone aboard will be terrified for their lives by the time the coasties finally identify themselves. A friend of mine was tailed in this manner for eight hours off the Baja coast before, surprise!, it's us, the US Coast Guard! In legal terms this is called–seriously–the "fright factor."

In the post-9/11 world the Coast Guard has added duties, and added weaponry. Instead of a couple of sailors in a rubber boat with big Mae West life jackets and sidearms, a common sight is coasties with assault rifles in high speed inflatables with M-240 machine guns mounted bow and stern. Just the presence of all this weaponry makes many nervous or afraid.

I’m not someone who sleeps with a copy of the US Constitution under his pillow, but as “the supreme law of the United States of America,” I take it to be the governing document of my relationship with my government. The first ten amendments to the constitution are called the Bill of Rights, and many have died defending them. Here’s what the Fourth Amendment says:

Amendment IV The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Over the years and many Supreme Court cases, the Fourth Amendment has been interpreted to mean that without a warrant or probable cause law enforcement can’t search your car, your office, your mountain cabin, your pocket, or your wood shed. According to the Constitution, law enforcement personnel can’t search anywhere in your private universe without probable cause or a warrant issued by a judge.

Except your boat: They can board your boat any time they please and look anywhere they want without warning, warrant, or cause, and they do so every day. This is called a “suspicionless search.”

Why can the Coast Guard search our boats without a warrant or probable cause when law enforcement is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment from searching our homes, cars, offices, or motorhomes?

Continue to Part 2


70 comments on “Coast Guard Boardings and Your Fourth Amendment Rights, Part 1

  1. tc1uscg

    Mike, I disagree. The CG doesn’t “abuse” it’s authority and we do everything we can to make boardings/inspectins as painless as possible. If you feel it should be changed, why stop there. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can hide behind the 4th curtain. Then, we can have more bad people doing their deed and we will just stand on the sidelines pointing to the fact that people like you want to abolish something that’s been around since 1790, to protect you, not to harm you.

  2. Mike

    That needs to be reviewed and changed. The justification when this was written was it would take far too long and be impossible to get a warrant. Today all Navy/USCG ships have internet and faxes not to mention radios and cell phones. Would take a matter of 10 minutes to get a warrant if probable cause exist. This is, especially today with all the technical tools available a complete violation of the 4th amendment. Boarding an American vessel in American waters is protected under our constitution and illegal without a warrant. If the Navy of USCG boards an American vessel without a warrant the must have the consent of the boat owner to board. In open seas boarding an American vessel without a warrant is piracy. They must have probable cause and a warrant period.. The only reason they would not get a warrant is if there is no real probable cause. I am always amazed at Gov officials that ignore the constitution. The Constitution is the operating system that all laws derive their power. The 4th Amendment is clear and does not list any exceptions.

  3. Norris Larson

    We were boarded once in a large Bay off Lake Ontario in what must have been a training mission for new CG crew. They were polite and did not think our herb garden was hiding weed, but one crewman asked to see the spark supressor on our big diesel engine.

  4. Clark Beek

    Hi Ryan, I don’t know what RS and PC are, but we’ve discussed this in the comments several times: There may be codes of conduct internal to the Coast Guard that restrain where a boarding officer searches during a boarding, but the law itself doesn’t provide any limits. As I’ve said before, I applaud the Coast Guard for respecting privacy at some level, but this is more of a gentleman’s agreement than law. Again, I’m not criticizing the Coast Guard, but the law. I think the Coast Guard has wielded its essentially unlimited search powers very well: incidents of abuse are few. The problem is that suspicionless searches are allowed in the first place.

  5. Ryan

    For the author: A CG Boarding Officer does have the authority to board a vessel at any time. But without RS or PC they can’t simply just go looking/searching through your private spaces. Trust me on this, there are active duty memeber’s being kicked out for violation of 4th amendment right’s. This below is not correct, let me know if you needed this clarified any further.

    “I’m surprised how many boaters don’t know this. The US Coast Guard can board your boat any time they want, and look anywhere they want, without probable cause or a warrant. They can do this on the open sea, or while you’re asleep aboard in your marina at midnight. They can look through your bedsheets, in your lockers, in your bilges, in your jewelry box, or in your pockets.”

  6. ed lepera

    many many years ago while our navy ship was visiting NS Rossevelt Roads PR I came across a coast guardmen in the enlisted bar with a bandage on his head. He told me that while boarding a suspected drug carrying sailboat he was ambush by the owner (a 60 year old woman with a frying pan) who thought they were being boarded by pirates. After everything was cleared up they realize that they had the wrong boat. He said the Skipper let them go and did not press charges against the senior citizen.

  7. Chris Dewhirst

    As a retired CG Officer with a tour in Washington in the office that oversaw policy with regards to boardings, I can tell you that we were very very involved with all the minute details of how they were done, how the people were trained, and answered many congressional inquiries; some made good points, and some were from jerks who failed to follow basic requests and had to be restrained for their own safety while the boarding was done. I remember reading a Navy piece of literature which was a talk John Paul Jones had given to his officers with regards to boarding. It was about 38 years ago so I can only paraphrase… ‘Remember we are a nation of free men, so treat our citizens with respect as you board them’. Everything that was done at the policy level when I was in Washington in the 90’s was very cognizant of the fact that Congress could take what they had given at any time. We did not tolerate rudeness or unnecessary force by our teams in any way; we did emphasize showing presence to the boarding target that would encourage cooperation; so long arms are always in sight and sometimes carried on board. For larger vessels boarded by teams deployed from a cutter, crew served weapons would be trained on the vessel to protect the boarding teams if necessary. We worked with some very bad people in the Florida area, and of course in the Caribbean. But the great majority of the boardings were a simple walkthrough and check of paperwork; our goal was (and surely still is) not to inconvenience people, so we want to allow them to maintain their course and speed. This also usually helps the CG small boat make a safe approach. There are always new threats (terrorism) that will require the CG to fulfill its duties to protect us and also enforce the customs laws of the US. If you were to weaken the ability of the CG to enforce these laws, it would be an obvious path for a smuggler or terrorist to exploit.
    I would correct one point that the author makes in a few places. The CG does not have the right to board a vessel in the territorial waters of another sovereign nation. Of course if that nation extends permission to the CG, they may be able to have a visit after all. Importantly, other military services such as the Navy do not enjoy these same rights; again, I believe the CG continues to be very mindful of the rights of our citizens, and does everything in its power to do boardings in a professional, safe, courteous and respectful manner. Mariners can assist in this by carefully following the instructions given.

  8. Bill Conlyn

    As a USCG boarding officer in Florida and Vietnam Nam that line about going aboard a vessel into the unknown with unknown people rings very true. For the amount of time I’ve spent on the water, I’ve been boarded very few times but always in a friendly and professional manner. What goes down, comes around.

  9. John Gardner

    As an attorney, I would like to see more citation to specific statutes and caselaw in your article. I appreciate your general conclusions, but I’d like to try to parse the information (as I do for a living).

  10. Clark Beek

    Hi Casey, I don’t believe anyone has been shot in this kind of incident. If an innocent person were shot, it might become the tipping point for this issue, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. You make a good point though: with all the make my day, stand your ground, and concealed carry laws, a surprise boarding might not be such a hot idea.

  11. Clark Beek

    Hi Tom, We’ve heard what you’re saying many times, but never seen anything in writing. I believe there is an internal Coast Guard document, that the public can’t see, that establishes some kind of code of conduct. What we have seen in writing is the law, which says “board vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, anytime, 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,” and even greater search authority under customs law. Nothing about man sized spaces, reasonable expectation of privacy, that the boardings are strictly for safety inspections, or any limitations on the searches whatsoever.

    In the press we often see the likes of this: “Coast Guard spokesmen say they have unlimited authority to board and search vessels on the basis of a nearly 200-year-old statute that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1983.”

    I believe what you’re referring to exists – somewhere – and it actually scales back what the CG and do under law, which I think we all applaud, but it’s not the law.

  12. Roscoe

    I have never had a problem with them. Every time I get lost in fog I call them and they avoid me like the plague. I get stuck on bottom they are nowhere to be seen. I could be sinking and beg them to board me, but I think they would stay forty yards away and watch. And we did capsize our dinghy and they showed up with a machine guns and watched. I don’t think they will ever come near me.

  13. Brenda

    We were boarded July 2013 coming back from Bimini to FLL, when the cutter radioed and said to prepare to board, we were right at Port Everglades, we radioed back that we needed to tack to avoid the channel. We were told tack and they would board us after tack. Very polite, professional, not once did we feel threatened. They even took the time to let our young female sailor get a picture with them. Not sure how I would feel about nighttime marina boards, But daylight boards-I feel safer knowing they do this to protect our country!

  14. Joseph D.

    Feel free to board and inspect guys – you are doing your job. But we will video record the whole encounter to keep you honest.

  15. Tom

    I was a USCG boarding officer for 20 years and find this story missing….14USC89 allows the Coast Guard to only to board U.S. flagged vessels in U.S. Waters or in other waters, not any vessel. The first priority for a boarding team is the Initial Sweep of the vessel to account for any unaccounted personnel or potential safety concerns for the boarding team. To say the USCG can search wherever they want is incorrect it is the initial safety inspection is only for man spaced compartments, if anything ileagle is observered then this gives the CG probable cause to search the rest of the boat.

  16. Tom

    I was a USCG boarding officer for 20 years and find this story missing….14USC89 allows the Coast Guard to only to board U.S. flagged vessels in U.S. Waters or in other waters, not any vessel. The first priority for a boarding team is the Initial Sweep of the vessel to account for any unaccounted personnel or potential safety concerns for the boarding team. To say the USCG can search wherever they want is incorrect it is the initial safety inspection is only for man spaced compartments, if anything ileagle is observered then this gives the CG probable cause to search the rrst of the boat.

  17. Casey Fasciano

    Boarded in the middle of the night with my parents on their 38′ sailboat 1976 anchored in a good wide anchorage area out of the intracoastal near DelRay beach area( forget the name of nearby inlet). My dad woke up to flashlight beams and footsteps………….if he had his shotgun handy, he could have been killed if he brandished it to defend against intruders who did not identify themselves before boarding. The new stand your ground laws would have encouraged grabbing a gun to defend yourself upon waking up from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, with tragic results for a law abiding WW2 vet. Has anyone been shot yet under similar circumstances?

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  20. K.L.

    I sail out of one of the busiest ports, The Port of Los Angeles and I have been boarded 2 times in a month once on Memorial Day (they were checking for drunk boaters) The first time was a safety check, both times they were VERY friendly and professional. I have no problem with them boarding my vessel at any time, however in a marina while I am sleeping or having sex is far fetched. Keep up the good work Coasties and welcome aboard.

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  23. albert r

    Used to deliver sailboats from Hawaii to the West Coast and have been boarded many times. Always pays to be polite, however, if the helm eases the sails and changes course slightly before they get close so one can roll in the trough and the engineer fires up the genset for a little background sound while the cook starts a pan of onions and garlic frying on the stove for a redolent aroma down below, boardings tend to be quite short. If all else fails, having each of the crew offer to tell the armed Coastie (who is watching them with finger on the trigger) about their experiences with Jesus as your personal savior, does help and sometimes relieves the stress of having a gun pointed at you. Coasties get real upset when you video them, too, so conceal that GoPro before they board. Being boarded by the Mexican Navy is even worse….

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  25. Scott

    This authorization by congress was put in place a long time ago. I think it needs to be revisited. What’s happening today is the coast guard is more of a police force patrolling lakes with the authority to stop and question anyone at anytime. The only reason it hasn’t been overturned is because the general public does not care about boaters. If this was happening in cars it would overturned immediately.

  26. J

    I was a enlisted Coast Guard boarding officer for over 7 years. Time was spent both in the great lakes as well as the high seas. Tactics are taught at FLETC and at the local Coast Guard units on how to bend rules and “create” reasonable suspicion and probable cause so that they have a reason to look through anything we want on a boat. They have the right to pull you over for no reason at all and demand all off your papers. They have the right to step aboard your boat and, at the very least, look through your bilges, bathroom areas, engine bays and anywhere else there may be a safety concern. In the process of this safety inspection, they are taught to look around for anything else that might endanger our lives or might be illegal. If they see a baggy, there’s the probable cause to go looking through your bags for drugs. If they see a empty beer can in a trash can, there’s all the info they need to conduct field sobriety tests. Coast Guard Boarding officers have more power than people realize. This is mostly mom and pop type boardings I am talking about. The high seas boardings are even more of a wild west… I disagreed with some of these rules/laws but after all, we were working within what 14usc89a says we could do.

  27. Cynthia

    I have a question. If the USCG is not permitted to look between your sheets, etc., without probable cause, what sort of situation, in say- a random boarding, would make it permissible to destroy a $12,000 safe?

  28. Seabert

    Yes, the USCG operates world wide in international waters and any friendly waters where they have permission. I have been boarded in Thailand, Italy, Bermuda and Australian waters by the USCG. One mile off of Venice Italy a US Navy Ship (I don’t know what type, but small.) Pulled along side our 108ft housebarge and boarded us. They had a small group of USCG persona on board. They searched the ship, in containers, closets, cabinets, tossed every room and furniture and when they came to the time locked safe in the master bedroom they told me to open it. I told them I can’t it’s time locked as you can see by the 2 days and 9 hours left on the timer displayed right there. When they asked me what was in it, I told them, nothing illegal. Valuables we don’t want stolen. They had a team come over from the navy vessel with a cutting torch and destroyed my $12,000 safe to see that I had some cash and jewelry inside. They counted the cash to make sure it was under $10,000 in value. They went on their way citing us for some oil in the bilge because we had automatic bilge pumps. My home was a wreck and my valuable were now unsecure. I contact the American Embassy in Italy and file a complaint. I am told there is nothing I can do, it was a legal search. I file with my insurance company to replace the safe. Nope. Legal search.
    The “constructive” advice I got from the insurance company. Don’t use the timer on the safe. Which, of course, defeats the purpose of having it.

  29. Shawn Hall

    Actually, from what I have seen they are boarding to see if someone is drunk or check for drugs. Honestly they endangered my whole family recently. They did it respectfully but it was a waste of time.

    They pulled us over nearing dusk, I had 4 miles to go, easy 2 foot waves and sunlight. My father was driving and had had 2 glasses of wine approximately 4 hours before hand, he is over 60 and not an often drinker.

    They were very polite, asked us for all of our paperwork, checked our toilet Y valve? and everything else on the check list of safety. While of course they made a point to look in our bathroom, in our cabin, and in the engine compartment (Checking that Y Valve, or looking for drugs more likely). They then gave my father a sobriety test that took forever, then breathalyzed him, he was well under the legal limit. They also gave me the sobriety test ( I literally asked for one out of curiousity, I could not do tip to tip finger to nose perfectly, that is harder than it looks) They breathalyzed me 0.000.

    It was a respectful event but it took over an hour long. The problem being that by this time dusk was to full dark and the cooling of the evening started kicking up the sea (Lake Erie goes from calm to dangerous in a blink) We can of course navigate at night but it is always easier and safer to enter harbor and dock with the sun.

    The reality is that they were looking for drugs, looking for someone over the legal limit, looking for anything they could arrest someone for.

    So yes, nothing bad happened to us, but I was severely inconvenienced, my family put in danger, and for what purpose? We were on a motor boat, under way, 4 miles from shore in calm waters, lights were on and visible.

    Engine runs good and clean. Numbers on side of the boat are professionally done, registration is up to date.

    So, how is this helping us? How is this about safety? It is true that if you haven’t done anything wrong, being stopped won’t get you arrested, but what does that matter, why is that any better. What if I just came into your home, asked you questions (you have to answer) very politely of course, but you have to answer me, you have to be polite to me, you have to let me look through all your things.

    I walk upstairs in your home go through your wife’s underwear drawer. You pay taxes, you haven’t done anything wrong, you just came home from work and were getting ready for dinner.

    I now politely ask you some more questions, I rummage through your bathroom, your dinner is getting cold.

    An hour later I say your good to go and I politely leave.

    Are you okay with this? Why are you more okay if it is a police officer, a DNR agent, or the Coast Guard?

  30. Andrew

    “We can’t just look through pockets, lockers, bed sheets, etc. We need probable cause to do so.” But if they did and found something you were prosecuted for, what are your chances in court (assuming lack of videotape evidence)? Cop perjury without videotape counter evidence always wins in court.

  31. ME2


    You need to do more research before publishing an article like this. No, we can’t just look through pockets, lockers, bed sheets, etc. We need probable cause to do so. We board to ensure that vessels are in compliance with all federal rules and regulations. We are proactive in making sure that vessels are seaworthy. Why don’t you ask to shadow a boarding to see what it is really like, do some research man.

  32. JoeCoastie

    U.S. Code › Title 18 › Part I › Chapter 109 › § 2237
    18 U.S. Code § 2237 – Criminal sanctions for failure to heave to, obstruction of boarding, or providing false information

    (1) It shall be unlawful for the master, operator, or person in charge of a vessel of the United States, or a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, to knowingly fail to obey an order by an authorized Federal law enforcement officer to heave to that vessel.
    (2) It shall be unlawful for any person on board a vessel of the United States, or a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, to—
    (A) forcibly resist, oppose, prevent, impede, intimidate, or interfere with a boarding or other law enforcement action authorized by any Federal law or to resist a lawful arrest; or
    (B) provide materially false information to a Federal law enforcement officer during a boarding of a vessel regarding the vessel’s destination, origin, ownership, registration, nationality, cargo, or crew.
    (1) Except as otherwise provided in this subsection, whoever knowingly violates subsection (a) shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both.

  33. Taylor

    It’s to ensure the safety of dumb f*#%s that call for help in the middle of the night, if your going to sail have the proper gear. They aren’t boarding to “find” illegal articles, they are boarding to see if you adhere to the safety laws put in place to prevent the loss of life. If you can call them for help why not let them help you before a bad situation arises and let them board you to make sure you are sailing safley. It’s free to you and pays off to listen to the coast guard and make sure your cruise doesn’t end in a loss of someone you know. If you have nothing to hide then don’t worry, take an hour or two out of your day and enjoy the company of the ones who would GIVE their lives for someone in distress, OUR number one goal is to protect and save lives not to ruin you day.

    Respectfully, me

  34. James J. Pond

    I’m thinking about probable cause, articulate suspicion, open view find, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    14USC89 isn’t the only authority either. The U.S. Coast Guard can enforce U.S. Customs to enforce (FISC)… Fiscal, Immigration, Sanitation, and Customs.

    Hope that helps!

  35. Nunya

    Like it or not, law is law. As U.S. citizens, you are to obey the laws. The Coast Guard is there to enforce our laws upon the high seas, rivers and any other federal bodies of water. The Coast Guard doesn’t just board its citizens, either: they board oil tankers, international freight ships, recreational boaters from other countries, etc. Your rights aren’t being infringed upon, and if you think they are, maybe it’s possibly because you have something to hide. If you don’t have anything to hide, and you comply with the recreational safety inspection, you’re free to go on your way. The only things they typically look for are safety hazards (exposed wires, leaking fuel tanks, gas tanks too close to an engine, etc.), safety equipment, and life jackets. That’s really about it. If all that is in compliance as per whatever federal laws apply to your vessel, you’re good to go. End of story.

  36. Jay

    Im a 7 yr USCG vet and I completely agree with this article. We have a Bill of Rights for a reason. I dont care how many supreme court rulings there are saying 14USC89 is legally fine, its not, it is a major violation of basic civil rights. Im shocked so many Coasties are pro breaking their oaths to the constitution as they are.

  37. Chris

    I sail. I’m an avid defender of the constitution and individual rights afforded by it. I am also an 11 year veteran of the USCG. This article is misinformed and full of fallacies. Perhaps the author should look up US Code and educate himself on what we can and cannot due during a maritime safety or post-search and rescue boarding.

    And Mike, I challenge you to do some research as well and keep from sounding so uneducated in the future.

  38. Me

    We board your vessel not to violate your constitutional rights, but for your safety and the safety of the boating public as well as to educate and inform. As stated above, we cannot enter a space where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy without probable cause, and cannot perform searches unless there is a reasonable suspicion. How the author thought he could write this article and not be instantly met with an outcry from qualified Coast Guard Boarding Officers and Boarding Team
    Members is appalling. Boarding Officers go through rigorous and in depth training to achieve their qualification to ensure that they are aware of the constitutional rights of civilians and the limits of their own authority. And I assure you, if an Officer misinterprets or oversteps the limits of his authority, he is held responsible for his actions. We’re the Coast Guard, not the Gestapo, we’re there to help.

  39. scott

    14 USC 89 has been upheld by the courts, and found constitutional numerous times. You may disagree with this, but fight a boarding and you will be arrested, fined, and maybe imprisoned.

    Former USCG Boarding officer, and attorney.

  40. Justin

    This article is not entirely true. With 20 years experience in the CG I can tell you that the CG does not have the right to search whenever and where ever they want. It is true that the CG has the authority to board your vessel at a time. However, if there is a space onboard where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, they cannot search that space without probable cause ie, stateroom, personal belongings, etc. the purpose of a routine recreational vessel boarding is to check for required safety equipment and educating the public on safe boating practices. Most states don’t require a boating license or a knowledge of any sort in how to safely operate a vessel. Without this CG authority the number of search and rescue cases would increase significantly. The increased weaponry is a sign if the times. Post 9/11 has heighten our country’s awareness of foreign threats. This show of force is a deferent to those who want to do us harm.
    If you believe you were unreasonably searched please report it. We are here to protect our citizens safe from terrorists, smuggling activity, and from the everyday dangers on the water.

  41. Abeille

    To those that say the article is wrong or that they don’t have the right to search, here it is.

    14 U.S. Code § 89 – Law enforcement.
    (a) The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States. For such purposes, commissioned, warrant, and petty officers may at any time go on board of any vessel subject to the jurisdiction, or to the operation of any law, of the United States, address inquiries to those on board, examine the ship’s documents and papers, and examine, inspect, and search the vessel and use all necessary force to compel compliance. When from such inquiries, examination, inspection, or search it appears that a breach of the laws of the United States rendering a person liable to arrest is being, or has been committed, by any person, such person shall be arrested or, if escaping to shore, shall be immediately pursued and arrested on shore, or other lawful and appropriate action shall be taken; or, if it shall appear that a breach of the laws of the United States has been committed so as to render such vessel, or the merchandise, or any part thereof, on board of, or brought into the United States by, such vessel, liable to forfeiture, or so as to render such vessel liable to a fine or penalty and if necessary to secure such fine or penalty, such vessel or such merchandise, or both, shall be seized.

  42. The dude

    I am currently a USCG boarding officer. This article is good but dosnt explain why we so what we do. But it’s hard to see the other side of what we do when you don’t fully experience it. Please ask me any big you want. I ll try to offer any answers to questions you guys have. Btw I have over 8 years LE Experience.

  43. Brandon

    This article is wrong they have the right to come on any boat at anytime to check your boat for safety but are not allowed to “search” anything without probable cause that is a violation of the Constitution. BUT they can come on and conduct an inspection as written in 140 SC a and that is not a violation of anyone’s rights. They come on check for safety and safety equipment, the only time they are forceful about the boarding is if you give them an attitude. Whether you like it or not they will come on board and if you try to sue the judge will have the US CG back 100%.

  44. Scott

    I don’t understand why the constitution does not apply when one is boating. I assume this is an old federal law that needs to be changed. In the United States no one should be subject to interrogation without probable cause.

  45. Mike

    At no point can they legally board a US citizens boat especially in US waters without permission or a warrant or probable cause. I understand you think its law because a law has been written but it is a clear violation of the Constitution. It makes me sick when I hear, “I have nothing to hide” or “they were really nice”. That sounds like a slave to me. It is your duty as an American to resist tyranny in any form. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. What that means as determined by the supreme court…

    The general rule is that an unconstitutional statute, though having the form and name of law, is in reality no law, but is wholly void, and ineffective for any purpose; since unconstitutionality dates from the time of its enactment, and not merely from the date of the decision so branding it.

    An unconstitutional law, in legal contemplation, is as inoperative as if it had never been passed.

    Such a statute leaves the question that it purports to settle just as it would be had the statute not been enacted.

    Since an unconstitutional law is void, the general principals follow that it imposes no duties, confers no rights, creates no office, bestows no power or authority on anyone, affords no protection, and justifies no acts performed under it . . .

    A void act cannot be legally consistent with a valid one.

    An unconstitutional law cannot operate to supersede any existing valid law.

    Indeed, insofar as a statute runs counter to the fundamental law of the land, it is superseded thereby.

    No one is bound to obey an unconstitutional law and no courts are bound to enforce it.

  46. Lauri

    It’s not the USCG that I object to, no I have the greatest respect for what these men and women are about. No, it’s the trampling of my rights that I object to. If they could come into your land home like they can come into my water home, you would indeed think twice about this blatent stomping of our 4th amendment rights. The boat doesn’t have to be coming into the harbor or trolling around off shore, they have the right to enter, seach, and sieze forever just because it is on the water. Doesn’t anyone else see how dangerous this precedent is?

  47. Ed Kriese

    I’ve been boarded several times. They’re mostly young, inexperienced with a chip on their shoulders like cops. It’s like the Post Office with boats & guns.

  48. Pingback: Yeah, they can pretty much board you whenever they want! | Zero to Cruising!

  49. Dana Paterson

    Boarding and inspection and wholesale siezure of ships bearing contraband is what the War of 1812 was all about. It is most definitely constitutional!!

  50. Joseph Moceri

    With that said no other law enforcement can board your vessel without permission but customs and federal marshals. Local law enforcement can’t.

  51. Tom

    So….what happens if I leave an American Port, raise the Canadian Flag and head for Cuba??? Will the Coast Guard intercept me?

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  53. Mike

    Let me see if I can clear this up:
    1. 14 USA 89 grants the USCG the authority to do those things.
    2. Boardings are conducted primarily to ensure compliance with federal boating safety laws and regulations. They are also conducted to ensure compliance with federal fisheries regulations.
    3. the legal definition of a search is an intrusion by a government agent on a quest for evidence in an area with a reasonable expectation of privacy. Probable cause is needed to conduct a search.
    4. When the USCG boards a vessel, it is to conduct an inspection of the required safety gear.

    Hope this helps!

  54. David Moore

    As a skipper of a vessel you have the right to stop unsafe things from. Going on. If you feel danger of the act of a boarding is unsafe to you/crew/vessel you have the right to stop it from happing. I have seen it done. A capt if a vessel told USCG he was not going let the boarding go on bevause of safty. And added you are more then welcome to see me to the dock but this will not be happen here…he is a 100 ton capt. And.was not boarded there on the water or at dock. This was in texas salt waters.

  55. Clark Beek

    Hi Jon,

    This is one of several such comments to these posts. Title 14 section 89 says only the Coast Guard can perform suspicionless searches. It doesn’t say anything about Customs (Paul Calder’s incident) or Homeland Security. Since the CG is now part of Homeland Security, maybe they are assigning their powers to others? How far can this go? I wouldn’t hesitate to refuse a search from a local harbor patrol, because they’re not CG? Could the CG assign their powers to local law enforcement, in this same manner?

    I’m not sure if you were in inland waters or offshore, but these are the kinds of searches that are going too far, in my book, and if we’re in inland waters I think we should have our 4th Amendment rights.


  56. JoN

    To Zuppy I think you are correct, you can refuse boarding, but you need to head out of the territorial waters that extend to 200 NM from the coast line and not come back. I think you will be monitored with radar or escorted. (that is what I have heard) I have been boarded and even had weapons aimed at me(years ago when I thought I had rights) these guys are deadly serious! Don’t play with them.

  57. JoN

    What info. can you offer on other law enforcement? I was boarded by Home Land Security, they had 4 heavily armed officers, a $500,000 high speed boat, military weapons and protection. Two officers went below on my (smallish 30ft) sailboat. They barely squeezed through the companion way with all that gear. Every bag and tool box emptied. They were looking for terrorists! These tiny terrorists are difficult to find and hide in the strangest places!!!

    I also agree we need to protect our boarders. Can it be done without violating citizens rights? HLS was looking for drugs, I’m not stupid. A middle age dad with his kids out for an afternoon sail near Marathon Key Fl. We dont fit the modle for terrorist, drug transport, smuggling (who would smuggle leaving Fl and returning to Fl?

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  59. Jim

    Parker Reinhardt. I am ashamed to be an American if you are too. What a humiliating and bovine comment you made.

  60. Joe Smith

    Negative. A canadian flagged vessel in us territorial seas can not refuse a standard safety boarding from the Coast Guard. And this guys info isn’t correct about the boardings. If you truly want to know what the coast guard is all about their website explains their job and authority very clearly. Not this third party info

  61. Zuppy

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but UN Treaty prohibits nations from interfering with innocent passage of foreign-flagged boats.

    So a Canadian boat traveling through US waters could refuse boarding, yes?

  62. Jake Lakota

    I have a question nobody seems to directly answer. It all begins in the 1980’s with Miami Vice. When I was a lot younger I went to a Coast Guard yard to see what life was like. The SPs were very courteous and showed me around the yard. In conversation it was mentioned that CPOs were the only people who could board a boat. Even the captain of the CG vessel could not. My Dad taught me a story about how the Detroit police came to his Marina he working at to seize the car builder Tucker’s yacht. The captain of the yacht cast off, let the boat drift and pulled out a huge handgun and said “the first SOB who tries to board will be shot.” The cops left. Now I see Miami Vice board boats and I’ve seen the Miami police board boats in lobster raids. One on TV the other for real. Now, can a cop other than the CG legally board a boat that is not attached to land? In the opening scene in the movie Clear and Present Danger it is stated that only certain CG personnel can board a boat. I understand this but a regular policeman? Could somebody PLEASE explain this and give me a reference? Thanks

  63. Clark Beek

    Who are you, Innate Thought? I’ve tried to email you, but it bounces. Very interested in your take and all you added (after I read it three times and my head stopped hurting).

  64. Innate Thought

    Perhaps you should consider the council of the Lawyers….
    Consider the explanations offered by the US Federal Supreme Court in the Lozeman v. Rivera Beach Fla. jan. 2013.

    I submitt that the formula offered in the Lozeman Case which defines a “vessel”
    is evidence of commerece and is supported by numerous Federal and State documents:

    [-* ] = my explaination of the justices intention for applying the opinion as a guide line.

    Citations of the Justices Opinion follow

    The term “contrivance” refers to something “employed in contriving to effect a purpose”; “craft”
    explains that purpose as “water carriage and transport”; the addition of “water” to “craft” emphasizes
    the point; and the words, “used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,”
    drive the point home.
    [-* this I see as evidencing the aspect of a transporting service. ie.; a Commercial venture, key word “employed”. ]

    The Court reasoned that, despite the annual movement under tow, the wharfboat
    [-* this suggests the lack of support that a Commercial action was occurring.]

    And we pointed to cases holding that dredges ordinarily “served a waterborne transportation function,”
    namely that “IN PERFORMING THEIR WORK they carried machinery, equipment, and crew over water.”
    [-* This is refering to a business in operation. key words: “performing” and “Work”]

    We did not take these statements, however, as implying a universal set of sufficient conditions for application of the definition
    Rather, they say, and they mean, that the statutory definition may (or may not) apply — not that it automatically must apply —
    [-* This is straight forward in relaying that not every thing folating on the water is a vessel.]

    where a structure has some other primary purpose, where it is stationary at relevant times, and where it is attached
    — but not permanently attached — to land.
    [-* The statement “Where a structure has some other primary function” meaning the primary function of as “vessel” is evidence of a business operating.]

    our examination of the purposes of major federal maritime statutes reveals little reason to classify floating homes as “vessels.”
    Admiralty law, for example, provides special attachment procedures lest a vessel avoid liability by sailing away. Liability statutes
    such as the Jones Act recognize that sailors face the special ‘perils of the sea.’ Certain admiralty tort doctrines can encourage
    shipowners to engage in port-related commerce. And maritime safety statutes subject vessels to U. S. Coast Guard inspections.
    [-*This I inturpret as some of the reasons why not every thing floating on the water should be considered a vessel.]

    It is conceivable that an owner might actually use a floating structure not designed to any practical degree for transportation as, say,
    [-* This is referring to a business which might use craft built of any design in performing the operation of transporting. Canoting anything CAN be a Vessel
    when used for commerecial ventures.]

    But even so, the City cannot show the actual use for which it argues.
    [-* This is referring to a business operation ie.: evidence of its voyages/manifests/logs/port fees/UCC1 or SAM filings, et., al.]

    Lozman’s floating home moved only under tow. Before its arrest, it moved significant distances only twice in seven years.
    And when it moved, it carried, not PASSANGERS AND CARGO, but at the very most (giving the benefit of any factual ambiguity to the City)
    only its own furnishings, its owner’s personal effects, and personnel present to assure the home’s safety. This is far too little actual
    “use” to bring the floating home within the terms of the statute.
    [-* There is no evidence of the provisioning of transportation of “Persons” or “Things” so no commerece is evidenced as applied.]


    The following relevant citings of the amicus breif support this aspect of the exposure of the element required to
    qualify as a vessel under 1 USC 3 is the commercial element.

    Relevant Citations of the Amici follow

    Maritime Law is, and at the time of the enactment of section 3 was, a special field of jurisprudence, created for special reasons. Fundementally, the special
    grant of admiralty jurisdiction to the Federal Courts seeks to provide uniform rules of law for the BUSINESS OF SHIPPING, to facilitate MARITIME COMMERECE,

    The application of admiralty law and jurisdiction entails a special set of substantive rules. These rules are speciffically designed to facilitate the movement of maritime commerece across state and national boundaries.

    Although the lines are not always easy to draw, it would likely lead to more satisfactory results if courts recognize that the purpose of having jurisdiction over maritime affairs is to provide a forum for developing a uniform body of law for those aspects of maritime commerce for which there is a substantial federal interest.

    The Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction of the U.S. has historically not been limited by the restraining statutes in English admiralty practice, and “is to be interpreted by an original view of its essential nature and objects and with reference to analogous jurisdictions in other countries constituting the maritime commercial world as well as the jurisdiction in England.”

    These proceedures provide powerful tools which inherently also contain the potential for abuse when applied to persons or things not appropriately within
    maritime jurisdiction.

    Schoenbaum ” the business or employement of a water craft is determinitive..”
    and Friedell “… But the purpose and business of the craft as an instrument of maritime transportation.”

    Other than providing an economic stimulus for hundreds of maritime lawyers, this intrusive extension of federal power and regulation is not calculated to serve any significant federal interest in facilitating maritime commerece.

    In reflecting the general maritime law codified in 1 USC 3, therefore, amici respectfully urge that the definition of “Vessel” reflect these principal
    considerations: [1] the functional reasons for applying admiralty law to particular subjects of interstate and international commerece.


    Additional support that a “Vessel” is a directly related to commerce and when related to mammerce “vessels” are subject to Admiralty/Maritime Rule…

    The National Vessel Documentation Centers Mission Statement.

    NVDC Mission Statement.
    The National Vessel Documentation Center facilitates “MARITIME COMMERECE AND THE AVAILABILITY OF FINANCING”
    while protecting economic privileges of United States citizens through the enforcement of regulations,
    and provides a register of vessels available in time of war or emergency to defend and protect the United States of America.

    US Department of Transportation/Navigation.

    Passenger Carrier Regulations

    49 CFR 374.101




    Subpart A–Discrimination in Operations of Interstate Motor Common Carriers of Passengers

    Source: 36 FR 1338, Jan. 28, 1971, unless otherwise noted.
    Redesignated at 61 FR 54709, Oct. 21, 1996.

    Sec. 374.101 Discrimination prohibited.

    No motor common carrier of passengers subject to 49 U.S.C. subtitle
    IV, part B shall operate a motor vehicle in interstate or foreign
    commerce on which the seating of passengers is based upon race, color,
    creed, or national origin.

    [36 FR 1338, Jan. 28, 1971. Redesignated at 61 FR 54709, Oct. 21, 1996,
    as amended at 62 FR 15423, Apr. 1, 1997]

    Sec. 374.103 Notice to be printed on tickets.

    Every motor common carrier of passengers subject to 49 U.S.C.
    subtitle IV, part B shall cause to be printed on every ticket sold by it
    for transportation on any vehicle operated in interstate or foreign
    commerce a plainly legible notice as follows: “Seating aboard vehicles
    operated in interstate or foreign commerce is without regard to race,
    color, creed, or national origin.”

    Sec. 374.107 Notice to be posted at terminal facilities.

    No motor common carrier of passengers subject to 49 U.S.C. subtitle
    IV, part B shall in the operation of vehicles in interstate or foreign
    commerce utilize any terminal facility in which there is not
    conspicuously displayed and maintained so as to be readily visible to
    the public a plainly legible sign or placard containing the full text of
    these regulations. Such sign or placard shall be captioned: “Public
    Notice: Regulations Applicable to Vehicles and Terminal Facilities of
    Interstate Motor Common Carriers of Passengers, by order of the

    Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation.”

    49 USC § 31136 – United States Government regulations

    Current through Pub. L. 113-9. (See Public Laws for the current Congress.)

    (a) Minimum Safety Standards.— Subject to section 30103 (a) of this title, the Secretary of Transportation shall prescribe regulations on commercial motor vehicle safety. The regulations shall prescribe minimum safety standards for commercial motor vehicles. At a minimum, the regulations shall ensure that—
    (1) commercial motor vehicles are maintained, equipped, loaded, and operated safely;
    (2) the responsibilities imposed on operators of commercial motor vehicles do not impair their ability to operate the vehicles safely

    49 USC § 31704 – Vehicle registration

    After September 30, 1996, a State that is not participating in the International Registration Plan may not establish, maintain, or enforce a commercial motor vehicle registration law, regulation, or agreement that limits the operation in that State of a commercial motor vehicle that is not registered under the laws of the State, if the vehicle is registered under the laws of a State participating in the Plan.

    International Registration Plan IRP


    The International Registration Plan (IRP) is a federally encouraged program to facilitate commercial vehicle registration and operation among states and Canadian provinces. IRP member jurisdictions collect registration fees from their ‘home based’ interstate trucking companies on behalf of each member jurisdiction in which the companies operate and must register.

    V C Section 9850 Numbering of Undocumented Vessels

    Numbering of Undocumented Vessels

    9850. Every undocumented vessel using the waters or on the waters of this state shall be currently numbered. No person shall operate nor shall any county, city, or political subdivision give permission for the operation of any undocumented vessel on those waters unless the undocumented vessel is numbered in accordance with this chapter, or in accordance with applicable federal law, or in accordance with a federally approved numbering system of another state, and unless (1) the certificate of number issued to such undocumented vessel is in full force and effect, and (2) the identifying number set forth in the certificate of number is displayed on each side of the bow of the undocumented vessel for which the identifying number was issued.

    The only consistent aspect maintained throughout: the opinion and Amicus Brief or the citations of the NVDC, US Department of Transportation and the California DMV
    seems to identify the act of a business functioning is required in order to qualify as a vessel.

    At every turn it is in the evidence of the application of Commercial Affairs when Maritime Law or vessel status apply.

    Consistantly these afore mentioned referrances illuminate my point; that subsequently in the absence of commerece the Maritime rule is moot.

  65. Parker Reinhardt

    I’m in agreement with USCG boarding vessels regardless of origin, especially since their call to duty is protection of our waterways. The USCG offers us sailors security in home waters. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude and allegience as they attempt to protect our safety. After all it is dangerous world. They are an essential service and all sailors even foreign flagged should respect USCG enforcement.

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