Searches at Sea  (See Full Document for Citations)


Coast Guard and customs officers are authorized by statute to board any vessel in U.S. territorial waters to conduct routine document and safety inspections without a warrant or suspicion of criminal activity if the vessel is subject to the jurisdiction or operation of U.S. law. Such document and safety inspections are limited to examining documents, visiting the vessel's public areas, examining safety equipment, and entering the hold to obtain the main-beam number. Once on board, increased suspicion of illegal activity may authorize officers to expand the search or seize the vessel. Statutes authorizing searches at sea generally do not limit how frequently officers may search an individual vessel. Warrantless document and safety inspections may be conducted even if the inspectors also suspect criminal activity.

Because there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in nonpublic areas of the vessel with limited common access, warrantless searches that extend beyond document and safety inspections require some particularized suspicion of wrongdoing. Limited searches of domestic vessels beyond document and safety inspections require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, whereas full “stem-to-stern” searches require probable cause.

Customs officials are authorized to conduct document and safety inspections of foreign or domestic vessels located (1) in the United States, (2) within customs waters, (3) within a “customs-enforcement area,” or (4) in any “other authorized place.” Customs officers are not generally authorized to search vessels on the high seas. However, they are authorized to board and examine a “hovering vessel” wherever it is found, including on the high seas. Customs officers may also pursue a fleeing vessel beyond customs waters if the vessel was originally hailed within customs waters.

Because Coast Guard officers are considered customs officers, they may act pursuant to the statutory authority granted to customs officials. Unlike other customs officials, however, the Coast Guard may conduct inspections of vessels under jurisdiction of the United States on the high seas.

Foreign vessels within the territorial waters of the United States may also be boarded for document and safety inspections without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Coast Guard officers may board and search a foreign vessel on the high seas if they have reasonable suspicion that the vessel is subject to jurisdiction of the United States and has violated United States law, or if the flag state of the vessel consents. Government officials may board a “[v]essel without nationality” to determine its true identity. Additionally, true “vessels without nationality” may be treated as if they are United States vessels and are subject to jurisdiction and laws of the United States.