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


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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

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