September 12, 2013
By Elizabeth A Tennyson
AOPA’s scrutiny of a series of stops and searches of domestic general aviation flights by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials appears to be having an effect.
After a flurry of reports indicating that law abiding pilots were being stopped, detained, and searched by CBP and local law enforcement officials, AOPA began investigating the events and questioning CBP’s authority to act. After filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, seeking congressional action, and arming pilots with information about how to handle law enforcement stops, the number of new incidents appears to have slowed sharply.
“We initially received more than 40 reports of warrantless searches of this kind,” said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs. “But since we have been digging deeper and demanding answers, the number of new reports has dropped dramatically.”
One reason for that drop could be the unwanted attention sparked by AOPA’s questions. In addition to filing freedom of information requests with CBP, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice, AOPA has sought the support of Congress to determine the legality of CBP’s actions and put a halt to searches conducted without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Earlier this week Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) met with AOPA President Mark Baker to discuss the situation. Graves then sent a letter to the inspectors general of the Department of Transportation and Department of Homeland Security requesting an investigation into CBP’s actions.
Another reason for the decline in new incidents could be the reaction of pilots, many of whom are saying no to warrantless searches. AOPA’s newly updated checklist “What to do if stopped by law enforcement” is a kneeboard-formatted guide that advises pilots of their rights during a stop and urges them to ask questions, review law enforcement officials’ identification, and report their experiences. It also encourages them to advise law enforcement officials that they “do not consent to this search.”
“It’s important for pilots to understand their rights in the face of law enforcement officials who may be exceeding their authority,” said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of operations and international affairs. “Pilots should make it known that they aren’t agreeing to any search without a warrant. ‘Just say no’ works.”
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.
Department of Transportation,
A federal agency chartered to secure national borders has been working inland, targeting general aviation with no clear authority.
The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have responded to AOPA with a call from the Freedom of Information Office, promising to explore the delay in responding to AOPA’s letter to acting Customs Commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski. AOPA isn’t waiting for answers and is building a case against CBP to take the issue to the next level.
A routine stop led to an extensive search of aircraft and occupants, a practice that may be becoming a (troubling) routine.
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