Are Random Boardings Unconstitutional?

In “Our Waterways” section, we once reprinted an editorial I read on the newsletter I get daily. Editorial writer Norm Schultz puts out a daily column that is generally geared toward industry news, but he also regularly discusses general boating concerns.

I have many times over the last ten years called random boardings unconstitutional, even though there are many who say it’s legal and police can do it—especially in Florida. Well—there are many instances over the last 200-plus years where an action by the police that was considered legal in a state was eventually ruled as unconstitutional. In fact, just about every Supreme Court decision. That’s what they do most of the time. A state passes a law and one day someone challenges it. Sometimes it’s right after the law was passed, and sometimes it’s a hundred years later. And state supreme courts regularly make decisions in a similar manner when some action by local or state officials or police is questioned.

In this editorial, Schultz gives some good examples of states that have declared random boardings illegal, two examples being Michigan and Arkansas. He writes that Ohio is next on the list to prohibit it.

But he doesn’t mention Florida. As far as I know, in Florida, it’s not even discussed on any level above that of the boater. I’ve never heard a state legislator, governor or any public official mention it as a problem, yet I hear about random boardings all the time. How about the random night inspections—which I called “raids”—that were held in Boot Key Harbor in January 2007 where FWC officers approached moored boats in the dark with bullhorns and spotlights (read “From the Helm” in the March 2007 issue—available online in Back Issues)? If that wasn’t unconstitutional, nothing is. Yet no one in government questioned it that I know of—only boaters. Fortunately, the FWC toned done their actions after that, but didn’t stop the general practice of random inspections. I hear about these types of police actions regularly, about both the FWC and local marine police.

What’s changed in marine patrols in the last 12 years is 9/11. After that date, lots of federal money was disbursed to hire more marine patrol officers to keep an eye on things, especially after the Coast Guard started concentrating more on national security. The number of marine officers has increased dramatically over the years—especially in Florida, and I believe many of them feel they died and went to heaven when they found out they can stop a boater whenever they wanted—for whatever reason they wanted—and inspect them, question them, ask for their “papers” and pretty much do what they want. I recall that incident where an FWC officer pulled his gun out during a toilet inspection, from fear of some boater’s suspicious movement—all to make sure the toilet was right.

I think it’s about time Florida joined the states that outlaw such actions.