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BIA Sydney International Boat Show 2018 728x90

Unlawful search - Part 2

by Peter A. Janssen 14 May 14:31 UTC
Can local officials stop and search your boat, even if they have no reason to think you've done anything wrong? © Peter A. Janssen

Last week we wrote about Frederick Karash, 37, of North East, Pennsylvania, who was fishing with four friends on his 23-foot boat in Lake Erie two years ago when he was stopped by an officer with the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission who checked to see everyone had fishing licenses. They did, but the officer then conducted a safety inspection of the boat and found only four life jackets for the five people. He issued Karash a citation with a $75 fine for the missing PFD.

Karash fought in the fine in court, saying the search of his boat was unconstitutional and violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment, which provides protection against unwarranted searches and requires authorities to have probable cause to search someone's home or property. Recently, a nine-judge panel of the state Superior Court heard the case, where Karash was represented by the ACLU.

After we published Karash's story last week, I received an email from Caroline Mitchell, the ACLU lawyer who argued his case. She also owns a sailboat in Erie, Pennsylvania, and she gave me permission to print her message:

"The ACLU considers this to be a very important case, because boats and boaters all over the country are being subjected to unconstitutional searches by local boating officials when there is absolutely no evidence of anything the boater is doing wrong to justify the stop and search.

"In Fred's case, his 23-foot cabin cruiser on Lake Erie was subjected to a stop-and-board for an hour, during which they 'tore through his things' and finally issued a citation for being 'short' one PFD. The Pennsylvania PFD law is 'mandatory presence, optional use.' We expect this case to end up in the Supreme Court. As a lifelong boater who has personally suffered through illegal stop and boards, that cannot happen soon enough."

She subsequently wrote me that she had been talking with friends in Florida "where suspicion-less stop-and-boards are routinely committed by Florida state boating officials with great inconvenience to many boaters trying to make a bridge or get into a port before dark.

"This was a big issue in Ohio, which recently passed a Boater Freedom Act to force boat officials to obey the Constitution. This is a national issue, not just a local one; 379,000 registered boaters in Pennsylvania are subject to random suspicion-less stop-and-board from state officials. Nothing prevents boaters from being stopped by different crews of officials on the same day. Stops often occur multiple times during the season.

"I've personally been stopped half a dozen times. They have never found anything on which to cite me, but I was delayed an hour on the Fourth of July weekend for a suspicion-less stop-and-board, while officials went through my boat stem to stern. They have absolutely NO suspicion to stop me, as I had current state registration decals and the U.S. Coast Guard current courtesy inspection. It was a most unpleasant interruption of my boating day."

In my own personal experience, I've been stopped many times on both coasts of the U.S. (and both coasts of Canada), most often by the Coast Guard but by local authorities too. In most cases the stops were professional and relatively brief, but some definitely were not.

So what do you think? Are local authorities only doing their job in conducting safety checks, even if they don't have any reason to stop and search a particular boat, or are they violating our Fourth Amendment rights?

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