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Are Random Boardings Unconstitutional?

Seaman Casey Coyne, a crewmember aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Shearwater, watches the Shearwater's boarding team perform a vessel inspection aboard a recreational vessel, Jan. 9, 2013, in the waters off Virginia Beach, Va.

Michigan outlawed it. Ohio lawmakers are on course to prohibit it. Arkansas has declared it unconstitutional.

If nothing else, the subject of random boarding of the nation’s recreational boaters is finally taking center stage.

Michigan lawmakers stirred the pot last year when they passed a bill prohibiting random stops of recreational boats for safety inspections. So it comes as no surprise that their action spilled over to neighboring Ohio where a similar bill is now rapidly moving through that legislature. But perhaps the biggest surprise is a recent Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that random boarding violates the Fourth Amendment.

First, Ohio’s House Bill 29, sponsored by Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, had its final hearing Tuesday. It was unanimously passed out of committee and passage by the full house seems assured. The bill has broad support from Ohio’s boaters, the marine industry and the Ohio Division of Watercraft. Division chief Rodger Norcross might have summed things up in Ohio the best during his candid testimony:

“We are supportive of HB 29 and agree that it is common-sense legislation designed to encourage, rather than discourage, recreational boating,” Norcross told lawmakers. “In my time serving as chief, it has been made clear that excessive and random boardings of vessels by Division of Watercraft law enforcement are unacceptable,” he added.

Norcross later noted that while it’s currently his policy, confirming it in Ohio law assures boaters the policy won’t change with future administrations and that’s important.

The Michigan law (and Ohio’s HB-29 when it passes) covers state and local agency marine patrols. But Michigan’s waters include four of the five Great Lakes while Ohio has the largest part of Lake Erie. Those waters are also federal and, therefore, patrolled by the Coast Guard. Boaters have been complaining about excessive random Coast Guard boardings for several years.

When Michigan’s law passed, I asked the Coast Guard if it would follow the Michigan statute. The answer was: It’s up to the various sector commanders, but federal law allows random boarding and federal law trumps state law. And that brings me to Arkansas.

On Feb. 7 , the Arkansas Supreme Court (case: Arkansas v. Robert M. Allen) handed down a ruling that the random stopping of Allen’s boat was unreasonable and violated Allen’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Allen was randomly stopped for a safety equipment check by Sergeant Glenn Tucker of the Game and Fish Commission. Tucker proceeded to arrest Allen and charge him with intoxication. Allen entered a no-contest plea in District Court and then appealed the conviction to the Garland County Circuit Court.

That court granted Allen’s motion to dismiss, finding that Arkansas Game and Fish officers had no authority to stop and arrest Allen because “there was a complete lack of probable cause for this Defendant’s (Allen’s) stop.” The state appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled that regardless of Arkansas’ law stating that Fish and Game Officers can stop boats for random safety inspections, they do not have the unfettered right to stop and check a boat at will. To do so without probable cause removes the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. In this case, randomly stopping Allen’s pontoon, which was “legally registered and illuminated . . . and being operated in an unremarkable fashion” . . . was “unreasonable and violated Defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.”

The Arkansas decision settles it for the fish-and-game officers there. It certainly raises a comparable question for all other states. But it really opens an interesting question about the same actions of the Coast Guard. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to the states but it is the federal law of the land. And, under the rule of law, the actions of government officials are prescribed by the principles and laws that make up our legal system and do not reflect the arbitrary whims and caprices of the government officials themselves.

In other words, isn’t a policy of stopping and boarding recreational boats, whether by a local, state or federal officer including Coast Guard personnel, for random safety checks unconstitutional at all levels? It seems reasonable to assume so. At the very least, isn’t it clearly time for a thorough review of any such policies as we begin another summer of boating?

(This story originally appeared in Soundings Trade Only.)