was mostly the result of the behavior of local police, not the
Coast Guard. However, this distinction was probably lost
on the boaters who did happen to be boarded by the Coast
Guard after having run the gauntlet of local police checks.
As I said at the outset, boater backlash has caused authorities
to outlaw random boardings by state and local authorities in
some places, and it has also caused agencies elsewhere to curtail
these activities, with the exception of “high vessel traffic events.”
At this point I should note that when you have two
adjacent states sharing a body of water, that body of water
falls under federal jurisdiction. Examples of this would be Lake
Champlain and Lake Tahoe. This federal jurisdiction does not
preclude state and local agencies from conducting their own
enforcement of boating safety, environmental compliance and
clean-water laws. So depending where you are boating, local
authorities may randomly board your boat, or they may not;
they may need probable cause. This is a distinction worth
knowing as you cruise from one state to another.
With a marine patrol boat alongside, most of us probably
would consent to the boarding. But in those probable-cause
states, you have the right to say no until a search warrant
is obtained. However, this can be a sticky situation. I am
no scholar of the Fourth Amendment, but I don’t advise
exercising that right just for the sake of flapping your sea-lawyer wings at the powers that be.
Any law enforcement agency within its own jurisdiction can
board a boat when faced with “exigent circumstances,” such as
someone clearly operating a vessel to endanger, boating under
the influence, displaying gross negligence, and so on. Probable
cause exists in these circumstances even without a warrant.
On the federal side of law enforcement proceedings, (let’s
stick with Coast Guard and no other federal enforcement
agency) the Coast Guard needs no probable cause to
board. Those very words make the hair stand up on many
a mariner’s neck and make the sea-lawyer come out from
within. Also, for the purposes of this article, I am referring
only to recreational craft; U.S.-flagged commercial vessels fall
into a whole different bucket of regulatory measures.
Why can the Coast Guard board boats at random? It’s
because my old outfit has been charged with enforcing
boating safety standards in construction, stability and all
federally required safety equipment.
Having been boarded many times (while on active duty
and post career), I’ll admit that I found it to be sometimes
inconvenient and intrusive. However, there’s the totality of
the situation to consider in connection with just about every
boarding. Where was the vessel? Where had it come from?
Where was it going? Were there any other mitigating factors?
When I was boarded as a private mariner, I would never
tip my hand that I had been a boarding officer. For the most
part, I found these events to be fairly painless, and I expect they
would be for a vast majority of experienced mariners. Intrusive
maybe. Inconvenient at times, yes. I’ll readily admit it.
On the whole they were professionally conducted, but
An “everything bagel” of law enforcement was stopping boats in
Charleston last summer, causing some complaints about the use
of government resources. The Charleston City Police boat was
carrying two Coast Guard officers, a Customs and Border Patrol
officer, a South Carolina marine patrol officer, a DEA agent, a
Charleston city police officer and a German shepherd.
Boarding Blues continues on page 92