Congress seeks investigation into CBP searches

Baker asks congressional leaders to protect pilot rights

September 12, 2013

AOPA President Mark Baker spent much of his first week on the job meeting with members of Congress as elected officials returned to work following the summer recess. Among the top issues on Baker’s agenda was a series of stops and searches conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Some of the more than 40 searches involved flights that never left the country and AOPA has demanded that the agency put a stop to searches conducted without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

During a Sept. 9 meeting, Baker and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) 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 Department of Homeland Security asking for an investigation into CBP’s actions.

In his letter, Graves noted that in the more than 40 reported cases of similar stops and searches, no evidence of criminal activity has been found, raising the question as to whether the searches were reasonable. He added that some of the searches were conducted by local law enforcement at the request of CBP.

“It is clear from local law enforcement information that they are being instructed by CBP to conduct stops on private citizens’ property without probable cause and with little additional guidance,” Graves wrote.

The letter from Graves came after AOPA filed Freedom of Information Act requests with numerous agencies, including CBP, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice, to try to determine whether CBP has the authority to conduct such searches. The response from CBP cited only a federal aviation regulation requiring pilots to present photo identification, a pilot certificate, and registration information to law enforcement officials who request it. But enforcement of the federal aviation regulations is the sole purview of the FAA and the agency says it has not requested assistance with ramp checks from CBP or other agencies.

In addition to his meeting with Graves, Baker held meetings covering a range of issues with numerous House and Senate leaders, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma); House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania); Rep. John Barrow (D-Georgia) who co-chairs the House General Aviation Caucus; Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa); Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey); Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Arizona); Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas); and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia).

“Protecting our freedom to fly is the core of AOPA’s mission, and we have to work closely with Congress be effective,” Baker said of his meetings on the Hill. “We are fortunate that so many of our elected officials understand the value of general aviation and are sensitive to the needs of the aviation community. These meetings are just the beginning, and I expect to spend a lot of time in Washington in the coming months as we continue to work on issues like security, NextGen, FAA funding, user fees, avgas, and more.

While those efforts continue, AOPA will continue to press its case for protecting pilot rights. Pilots who have been approached by law enforcement officials are encouraged to tell AOPA about their experiences using a simple online form. Pilots are also urged to download AOPA’s kneeboard-formatted checklist, “What to do if stopped by law enforcement.”

Elizabeth Tennyson

Elizabeth A Tennyson | Director of Government Affairs and Executive Communications, AOPA

Director of Government Affairs and Executive Communications Elizabeth Tennyson joined AOPA in 1998, the same year she earned her private pilot certificate. She also holds an instrument rating and enjoys jumping out of planes almost as much as flying them.