Vessel Searches

Vessel Searches.—Not only is the warrant requirement inapplicable to brief stops of vessels, but also none of the safeguards applicable to stops of automobiles on less than probable cause are necessary predicates to stops of vessels. In United States v. Villamonte-Marquez,263 the Court upheld a random stop and boarding of a vessel by customs agents, lacking any suspicion of wrongdoing, for purpose of inspecting documentation. The boarding was authorized by statute derived from an act of the First Congress ,264 and hence had "an impressive historical pedigree" carrying with it a presumption of constitutionality. Moreover, "important factual differences between vessels located in waters offering ready access to the open sea and automobiles on principal thoroughfares in the border area" justify application of a less restrictive rule for vessel searches. The reason why random stops of vehicles have been held impermissible under the Fourth Amendment, the Court explained, is that stops at fixed checkpoints or roadblocks are both feasible and less subject to abuse of discretion by authorities. "But no reasonable claim can be made that permanent checkpoints would be practical on waters such as these where vessels can move in any direction at any time and need not follow established 'avenues' as automobiles must do."265 Because there is a "substantial" governmental interest in enforcing documentation laws, "especially in waters where the need to deter or apprehend smugglers is great," the Court found the "limited" but not "minimal" intrusion occasioned by boarding for documentation inspection to be reasonable.266 Dissenting Justice Brennan argued that the Court for the first time was approving "a completely random seizure and detention of persons and an entry onto private, noncommercial premises by police officers, without any limitations whatever on the officers' discretion or any safeguards against abuse."267

263 462 U.S. 579 (1983). The opinion of the Court, written by Justice Rehnquist, was joined by Chief Justice Burger and by Justices White, Blackmun, Powell, and O'Connor. Justice Brennan's dissent was joined by Justice Marshall and, on mootness but not on the merits, by Justice Stevens.

264 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a), derived from § 31 of the Act of Aug. 4, 1790, ch. 35, 1 Stat. 164.

265 462 U.S. at 589. Justice Brennan's dissent argued that a fixed checkpoint was feasible in this case, involving a ship channel in an inland waterway. Id. at 608 n.10. The fact that the Court's rationale was geared to the difficulties of law enforcement in the open seas suggests a reluctance to make exceptions to the general rule. Note as well the Court's later reference to this case as among those "reflect[ing] longstanding concern for the protection of the integrity of the border." United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538 (1985).

266 462 U.S. at 593.

267 462 U.S. at 598. Justice Brennan contended that all previous cases had required some "discretion-limiting" feature such as a requirement of probable cause, reasonable suspicion, fixed checkpoints instead of roving patrols, and limitation of border searches to border areas, and that these principles set forth in Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979) should govern. id. at 599, 601.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014