In the wake of a number recent seemingly random searches of general aviation aircraft by federal law enforcement agents, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association demanded answers from Customs and Border Protection officials. In recent months, numerous searches of private aircraft have been reported by both the AOPA and the Atlantic. The AOPA filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests on behalf of members who were stopped and searched by federal agents.
In one case, cited by both sources, Gabriel Silverstein, a pilot from New York, was stopped by CBP officers twice on a cross country business trip to Oklahoma in his Cirrus light airplane in May. A California Bonanza pilot, Larry Gaines, was surrounded by federal agents and questioned for two hours. Another particularly disturbing example occurred last year when Robin Fleming, a 70-year-old glider pilot was arrested for ostensibly breaching a “no fly zone” over a nuclear plant in Hartsville, S.C. even though there were no posted airspace restrictions.
In the July 12 edition of AOPA Live Ken Mead, AOPA’s general counsel and executive vice president discussed the response from Customs and Border Protection. “It’s essentially a kiss off letter from the law enforcement agency,” Mead said, “that says we’re police, we’re law enforcement, the stuff you asked for is law enforcement sensitive and besides, not to worry because we’re there to watch out for the civil rights of your members.”
Mead, who is a former inspector general for the Department of Transportation, was not impressed with the government’s answer. “That’s an unsatisfactory response and we’re going to appeal it, but we’re not going to play games with these people,” he said. “That’s not how our government is set up. People get stopped by armed law enforcement agents, searched and they’re totally innocent. I take a look at my books and my law school training and I say there has got to be a reason for this and when there is no reason given I get concerned, I get alarmed, and I want relief. I want some action.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to conduct ramp checks, but aviation law attorneys Richard Miller and Reigel and Associates agree that FAA inspectors do not have the right to search private aircraft without permission. Pilots are required to allow FAA inspectors to examine their pilot licenses, medical certificates and aircraft documents. Nevertheless, a work instruction for performing ramp inspections on the FAA website tells inspectors to inspect some interior items such as seats and seatbelts. Searching private aircraft without probable cause may be violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
The AOPA apparently intends to take the fight over illegal aircraft searches to Washington. Mead said, “This is headed to Congress. This is not a battle that is going to be won by communication with enforcement agencies or the federal government or the state or local level. It needs a congressional spotlight.”
The AOPA is attempting to build a database of aircraft searches. The organization has requested that pilots who have been detained or searched by federal agents contact AOPA to tell their stories. This can be accomplished through an online questionnaire on the AOPA website or by calling 800-USA-AOPA.
Originally published on Aviation Examiner