April 24, 2014
By Elizabeth A Tennyson
The warrantless stops and searches of general aviation pilots and aircraft are continuing, according to reports from AOPA members who have had unexpected encounters with law enforcement.
AOPA has received multiple reports of stops in the past week alone. In one case, a father and his 14-year-old son were helping another pilot ferry a newly purchased aircraft from California to their home field in Virginia. The three made an overnight stop in Albuquerque before flying on to Illinois for fuel. But shortly after they parked the aircraft in Marion, Ill., they were approached by as many as 18 uniformed and non-uniformed law enforcement officers who came running toward the airplane.
Pilots are encouraged to carry AOPA's "What to do if stopped by law enforcement" checklist on their kneeboards. The checklist guides pilots through questions to ask law enforcement officers and provides possible responses to a request for an aircraft search.
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The member who reported the incident to AOPA had been flying in the right seat but had exited the airplane and was assisting his physically disabled son across the ramp when they were surrounded. The member described the experience as “terrifying” and said the officers, some of whom were from the local sheriff’s department, treated him and his son as if they had already been convicted of some crime.
When the father and son asked why they were being detained, the officers at first refused to answer but later said they had been told to intercept the aircraft because its long flight was suspicious.
Similar incidents have been reported nationwide and pilots have been told they were being stopped because they made frequent stops, visited a state where marijuana is legal, and even because they flew east from California. In addition, AOPA has recently received numerous reports of individuals claiming to be law enforcement officers calling fixed-base operators and asking them to report on arriving flights, specifying that the pilot should not be made aware of the scrutiny. In many cases, the stops are made by local law enforcement agencies acting at the request of Customs and Border Protection.
The member in this latest incident said he was intimidated and threatened and agreed to a search in part because he feared the officers would separate him from his son, who requires his assistance and was clearly frightened by the incident. The AOPA member said the officers opened inspection panels and used a dog that walked and scratched on the wings. At one point during the search an officer declared, “I got it,” but soon discovered the container he had found held only sea salt.
The member, who did not wish to be named for this article, said the incident has had a lingering effect on his son. The two are regular flying companions and have been planning a coast-to-coast motorglider trip. The son had even been taking glider lessons, but since the incident has been reluctant to go flying for fear that they might be stopped again.
“It has definitely had a profoundly negative impact on his attitude toward flying,” the father said.
AOPA continues to work to put a stop to the warrantless stops and searches of GA aircraft. The association is working with Congress on potential legislative solutions and planning face-to-face meetings with top-level CBP leadership.
“General aviation pilots are being unfairly singled out for warrantless stops and searches on routine flights with no nexus to the border,” said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Jim Coon. “We believe Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine division is overreaching its authority and trampling on pilots’ Fourth Amendment rights. We will use every tool at our disposal to bring an end to these incidents.”
During his recent confirmation hearings, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske committed to undertake a commissioner-level review of CBP’s activities relating to general aviation. AOPA is strongly urging Kerlikowske to make the review a top priority.
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.
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