Keep in mind that we are not attorneys nor do we have any expertise in the laws regarding these actions. Every Skipper must make their own decsions when they find themselves in a boarding situation. The following are only our thoughts and opinions. Boardings by law enforcement officers on the water have always been a touchy subject for many boaters. It’s often heard that such actions are considered anywhere from a minor inconvenience to a violation of our Constitutional rights. The truth and reality lies somewhere in between. There are still many misconceptions and misinformation in the boating community as to what can and can’t be done when you hear the dreaded command, “prepare to be boarded.” What are our options? Can we refuse? Are our rights being violated? The answers are simple yet complicated and may not be what many want to hear or to believe.
First, we must make the distinction between the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement. The U.S. Coast Guard has absolute authority to board any U.S. vessel, anywhere in the world and any vessel from any country in U.S. waters. THEY DO NOT NEED A WARRANT OR PROBABLE CAUSE. Furthermore, they have the authority, based on many treaties, to board vessels of other countries in international waters or within the territories of the members of the treaties. That authority has been upheld over time and is currently in affect under 14 U.S. Code § 89, and included in 14 USC 141. 14 USC 141 allows the Coast Guard to assist other agencies and allows other agencies to assist the Coast Guard. This authority has not been extended to local law enforcement or even other Federal law enforcement agencies by Congress, unless working in conjunction with the Coast Guard or Customs in a specific operation. But many states have passed their own laws allowing any law enforcement officer to board any vessel in their state for the purpose of determining the safety of the vessels and proper registration. In many cases, this allows them to also search a vessel, if necessary, to perform that duty.
In almost every incident we have been involved in or had reported to us, the Coast Guard crew has been courteous and professional. You may be asked to stop your boat and stand by, or they may ask you to maintain course and speed. You don’t ever want to argue or refuse. At that point, you could be suspected of smuggling or any number of issues, and the Coast Guard has some really big guns aboard their vessels. Suddenly, a simple safety check can escalate into something much more severe. If the Coast Guard boards at night, they will often approach with no lights on their vessel at all. If approached at night by an unlit vessel, it’s best to call on the VHF and ask “unlit vessel located at Lat 00.00.00 and Long 00.00.00, please identify yourself.” If this is indeed the Coast Guard, they will respond. Once again, be sure to follow their instructions. If you aren’t sure what they want you to do, ask for clarification. Be sure to let them know if you have firearms aboard and where they are located. If you have nothing to hide, you will have no problems.
Stops and boardings from local law enforcement, or even Federal Law Enforcement other than Coast Guard or Customs, should follow the same routine. Here is where there can be much confusion and where many of these discussions turn to the legality of these boardings. Our advice is, you are dealing with a law enforcement officer that is carrying a weapon, probably wearing a bullet-proof vest and driving a boat that you can’t outrun. If he wants to come aboard our boat, he can with no argument from us. Our feelings are, let him board and we can sort out the legality of it later, if necessary, when things are less tense and less perilous. These officers believe they have the legal right to stop and board your vessel without a warrant and without probable cause, and nothing you can say over the VHF is going to change their minds. So it’s best to just comply, and if you have an issue, deal with it through the proper channels away from the boat. But the question still remains, is this legal? Yes and no. In many states, including Florida, where the issue seems to crop up the most, state courts have upheld the rights of state and local law enforcement to board a vessel to determine the safety of the vessel and that the registration and ownership is proper. As of March 2016, a new state law may now require Florida law enforcement to have probable cause to randomly stop and inspect vessels without probable cause. Other states have found this to be illegal. The state courts in Michigan found these stops to be illegal, and Michigan quickly crafted legislation requiring local law enforcement to have probable cause to stop vessels. Ohio followed suit and Arkansas found it unconstitutional in Arkansas v. Robert M. Allen. Once again, we are stuck with a hodgepodge of laws and regulations from state to state. If boaters wants to spend their time studying case law for each state they enter on their boat, you MIGHT be able to argue the legalities. To confuse things even more, some states have said the local law enforcement has the right to stop a vessel, but must do the safety and registration check from the rail.
The bottom line is this, in our opinion. When stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S Customs, you have no rights. You must comply fully. When stopped by local law enforcement, it’s a foolish move to try and argue law with a man with a gun and a badge. It’s just as foolish to base any reactions to this situation on “internet lawyers” that will say you have rights and should refuse any such boardings. This could very well turn a routine and short safety inspection into a long, drawn out and very uncomfortable incident, or worse. If you disagree with these policies, get out the checkbook, hire a good lawyer and be prepared to fight your case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not on the water. All of us in the boating community will be very grateful to you. On the water, it has to be, “Yes sir. Welcome aboard. What would you like to see first?”
Susan and I are both long time sailors with tens of thousands of miles under our keels spanning the US east and west coast, Bahamas, Caribbean, Central Atlantic, and US Gulf Coast. We have been freelance writers for major boating publications, including Bluewater Sailing, Soundings Magazine, Sail Magazine, Southern Boating, Lats and Atts, MarinaLife Magazine, Nor' Easter, Good Old Boat, Living Aboard Magazine and a host of internet sites. We have spent over 17 years living aboard and cruising our Mariner 40 ketch, Sea Trek. In the not to distant past, we sold her and after much soul searching decided a change in lifestyle and scenery was in order so the search was on for a new boat. We knew a trawler was in our future and after doing a lot of research and looking at a lot of boats we found a very well cared for 1980 Marine Trader 34. We have named her Beach House for Susan's love of the beach and the hopes that the view from our new house will always be pleasant. Our plans are to continue our lifestyle and to change our cruising grounds a bit and visit those inland lakes and rivers we never could with our sailboat.