GA Group Challenges CBP Ramp Searches

 - October 3, 2013, 2:40 AM

AOPA is demanding that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) halt indiscriminate stops of general aviation aircraft, and the association’s newly installed president, Mark Baker, spent much of his first week on the job meeting with members of Congress as they returned to work from their annual summer recess.

During a September 9 meeting, Baker and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a co-chairman of the House General Aviation Caucus, discussed the importance of protecting law-abiding pilots from unreasonable search and seizure. Graves went on to sign a letter to the inspectors general at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asking for an investigation into CBP’s actions.

In his letter, Graves noted that in more than 40 reported cases of stops and searches, no evidence of criminal activity has been found, raising the question as to whether the searches are reasonable.

CBP claims a little-used administrative regulation gives it the authority to stop GA pilots and search their aircraft, even on flights that never leave the U.S. But AOPA is concerned about stops that result in pilot or aircraft searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

In June, AOPA general counsel Ken Mead, a former DOT inspector general, sent a letter to CBP asking the agency to explain its legal authority for conducting stops and searches on general aviation aircraft in locales such as Iowa City, more than 100 miles from any international border.

In an August 12 response to that letter, Thomas Winkowski, acting commissioner of CBP–an arm of the DHS and the agency that electronically monitors thousands of private domestic flights in real time–cited regulations allowing any federal agent to check pilot and aircraft documents as the basis for stopping, searching and sometimes detaining law-abiding GA pilots on domestic flights.

“In the course of conducting a pilot certificate inspection, facts may arise meriting further investigation or search to the extent authorized under the Constitution and consistent with federal law,” Winkowski wrote in his response.

More than 40 pilots have shared with AOPA their accounts of being stopped, sometimes more than once on the same trip. Some of those pilots were searched and detained by CBP agents while others were greeted at the ramp by local law enforcement acting on CBP requests. In some cases, local police reportedly used dogs to inspect aircraft, using alleged alerts to demand a more intrusive and invasive search of passengers, baggage and aircraft interiors.

A preliminary analysis of Winkowski’s response likens ramp checks by CBP to tasking FBI agents with seatbelt checks, noting that, as far as AOPA has been able to ascertain, the FAA has not asked for help with ramp checks from any other agency.