AOPA to Pilots: Report Warrantless Stops

 - June 6, 2014, 4:10 AM

After a meeting April 30 between AOPA president Mark Baker and the head of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the association is urging members report any encounters they have with CBP or other law enforcement officers.

AOPA has already received more than 50 reports from members being questioned and sometimes searched by CBP agents or local law enforcement officers acting on the federal agency’s requests. In some cases, the officers approached pilots with drawn weapons or dogs to inspect the aircraft.

In addition, FBOs nationwide have reported receiving phone calls from individuals claiming to be law enforcement officers seeking information on arriving general aviation flights. Some FBOs have been asked to look around the aircraft and not let the pilots or passengers know.

Baker told CBP commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske that such warrantless stops and searches of GA flights must stop. He reiterated AOPA’s view that there should be probable cause or an articulable, reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before CBP can stop or otherwise investigate GA pilots and passengers.

Pilots who have been stopped and searched have been told that their flights were suspicious because they flew too slowly, made frequent stops, landed or departed from a state where marijuana is legal, traveled long distances or changed the flight plan en route.

“We understand and support efforts to stem the flow of illegal drugs around the country, but that doesn’t alleviate the need to safeguard individual rights,” Baker said. During the meeting, CBP officials acknowledged that agency hand-offs to local law enforcement authorities have not always gone as planned, and CBP is reviewing those procedures as a result of AOPA’s input.

Also during the meeting, Kerlikowske said he is currently undertaking a bottom-up review CBP’s enforcement activity regarding GA aircraft. During his Senate confirmation process, he promised to look into the matter. He added that he is taking action to address incidents that involve aggressive law enforcement tactics being used on law-abiding citizens.

“This meeting was a step in the right direction in terms of bringing these incidents to an end, and we will continue to monitor CBP’s actions regarding GA aircraft,” said Baker. “At the same time, we won’t back down when it comes to protecting the rights of pilots, and we’ll continue to work with CBP and policy makers to ensure we get a satisfactory resolution.”

The recent spate of warrantless stops and searches of GA aircraft has gained some traction outside of the aviation community. On April 15, the Los Angeles Times printed an article on the high number of stops and searches involving what it termed “law abiding general aviation pilots.”

Retired police officer Ken Dobson told the paper that five sheriff’s cars surrounded his single-engine Cessna when it landed in Detroit after a flight from Palm Desert, Calif. Deputies got out with guns drawn. Then a helicopter arrived with four federal agents and a drug-sniffing dog.

They demanded to see Dobson’s pilot certificate, asked about the flight and mentioned that his trip from Southern California was suspicious. Fearing he would lose the certificate if he didn’t cooperate, Dobson consented to a search of his airplane.