Boating and the 4th Amendment

While motoring down the ICW in the vicinity of Jacksonville Beach, FL, we saw a police boat stop the sailboat in front of us.  We didn’t know what that boat had done in order to get stopped and we didn’t really want to slow down and appear nosey so I insisted that we try to go around.  As slow as sailboats are, we didn’t even make it up to the other boat before the police boat pulled away and turned around.  Then they came straight for us and turned the blue flashing lights on.  As the police boat approached, one of the officers stated that they were going to board our boat.  I said “OK,” but inside I am pretty sure we were both we thinking “You’re gonna do what?”

Sure enough, the police boat pulled up real close, didn’t even touch ours, and one of the officers stepped aboard Journey.  He just asked us for our boat documentation and our identification.  We had our boat documentation in a very organized binder (thanks for that tip David and Peg!) and the officer reviewed it, took a picture of our IDs with his smartphone, and then waved for the police boat to come close again to pick him back up.  Once the police boat got close enough, the officer hopped back onto it, waved goodbye, and headed back toward Jacksonville Beach.

Jacksonville police.

Jacksonville police.

So being sort of excited about our first boarding experience, Drena updated our Facebook status, but that sparked a lot of questions and controversy regarding our rights as citizens of the US.  So I spent some time researching the legalities of the matter and here is what I found.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, states:

“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.”  

But if you are on a boat, that goes out the portlight (window).  The same Congress, the First Congress, that came up with the Bill of Rights also gave the US Customs Officers and the Coast Guard the power to board any vessel at any time for any reason in the Title 19 United States Code 1581(a).

And apparently, somewhere there exists some federal statute that gives the power not only to the federal agencies but also state and local law enforcement can also board a vessel at any time without just cause.

As you can imagine, this gets people fired up.  For us and many of the folks we have been running into over the last 6 weeks, our boat is our home.  It is not immediately apparent why the same folks who wrote up the Bill of Rights would take one of those rights away from people on boats, it seems like quite the invasion of privacy.  But I did find some of the reasoning behind it.

There have been several court cases on the subject and the outcome has been such that the old laws are upheld.  The thought seems to be that a boat is different from a car because it can enter and leave the country more easily without going through a US Customs office since there are so many miles of coastline.  And what better way to make sure the boat is not smuggling contraband or illegal immigrants into the US?  Give government officials too much power, of course!

Joking aside, I personally have no issue with the Jacksonville Beach Sheriff’s Office boarding our boat.  We met some folks yesterday who had the same thing happen to them in Jacksonville Beach too.  Both of our boats are capable of making a run to another country to smuggle illegal things across the borders so it is understandable that we were boarded.  But it seems a little excessive that any vessel can be boarded at any time.  I am pretty sure the little Caroline Skiff fishing boats I see running around all the time are not quite capable of making drug runs to other countries.  I just hope that the power is not being abused and it truly is in the best interests of the safety of our waterways and citizens of this great country.


  1. We had the Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement boat come and board our boat two days ago. They asked permission to come aboard, but pretty much said we had to let them on. We were on our way to shore for a meeting so we asked if they could come back later. They said no. They did tell us that if we were late they could call their office to confirm the reason for our potential tardiness. They checked our paper work and put dye in our toilet and made us flush it to make sure we had a holding tank hooked up. Then they left.

  2. JR, if you only knew……
    We could go on for hours on the legalities of search & seizure, what can/can’t and why, the little nuances that would make one instance legal and another illegal. While I can appreciate the size of a sailing vessel and it’s possibility of smuggling contraband or illegals, me thinks ’tis only a ruse at times.
    But then again, that just may be little ‘ole cynical me…. you know, the guy that doesn’t trust the government.

  3. Ron has actually been looking forward to getting boarded so he can ask some questions and generally chat them up :) It makes me feel better knowing that they’re out there, doing their jobs and working to keep people safe. I’ve got no issue with being boarded, we’ve got nothing to hide, so long as they don’t come aboard and tear everything apart! Not that someone holding a different perspective has anything to hide either…actually my dad sounds a lot like ‘Dad G’ above :) Consider this another milestone along your journey, safe travels!

  4. FYI from what I read the main reason this broad power was originally given to federal authorities was to verify that proper taxes were being paid on imported products in the early part of the republic.

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