While I have not heard of the USCG boarding vessels tied to a dock, there have been documented cases of local water cops boarding occupied vessels at marinas
without warrants. Many of these cases have been in Florida
under their definition of a houseboat. Note that florida
law defines a houseboat as any vessel occupied more than 21 days out of 30. It also doesn't care where those 21 days occurred, so if, as a cruiser, you spend 3 weeks on your boat bringing it down the coast you are a houseboat and subject to inspection to make sure you meet their houseboat specific requirements as soon as you cross the border. It would seem from some of the descriptions of the searches that they went further than inspecting your holding tank
and Y-valve lock/position. While I have not heard of cases where boats were actually broken into, I've heard unconfirmed stories that marina personnel were asked to unlock boats. Those may just be rumors, but there is nothing in the law that says the boat must be occupied when they inspect it.
With respect to Maryland law and probably similar laws in other states, the treatment of commercial
vehicles has always been different than private vehicles. I have never had to pull into a weigh station or agricultural inspection station in my private vehicle. Hold on a second I take that back. I remember as a child having our car inspected and having to give up a bag of oranges when crossing the border into California
from Arizona. In any case, I believe that it is pretty easy for a water cop to determine if a boat is a commercial or private vessel and to apply able to apply different standards to them just as they do to commercial and private vehicles.
For those who say that since a boat can leave the country different standards should apply to boats. I have an airplane that can leave the country. Once I have come back in and been cleared by customs, it requires a warrant if anyone wants to do more than look at the outside of my airplane or ask to inspect the documents (registration, airworthiness certificate, inspection logs
, etc.). I have to show them the documents, but I do not have to allow them aboard the aircraft. They do not have the right to enter my airplane without a warrant.
For those who say the water border is more open so any vessel with access to the sea should be subject to inspection at any time without a warrant (this is the current
law and the reasoning behind it), I point out that the borders with Canada
are largely wide open to anyone with an adequate 4 wheel
drive vehicle. The courts have not affirmed the right of law enforcement to stop and inspect all such vehicles without probable cause or a warrant. In fact the courts have pretty consistantly come down on the side of the individual in these instances. Examples of unprovoked inspections and even property damage caused by local water cops and C&BP can be found in this forum. These customs and border patrol inspections are often on boats that have not recently been out of the country, or may never have been out of the country. I believe that this is simply abusive and that critcal resources could be better spent on dealing with boats that have actually left the country and come back. Harassing mom and pop traveling up and down the ICW
is simply abusive.
My point is that private recreational boats should be treated just like any other type of private vehicle with respect to search and seizure under the 4th amendment. I know that the current law is largely based on customs laws established in the late 1700's. How many private recreational vessels existed when that law was developed? The answer is probably pretty close to zero. These laws were developed to be applied to commercial vessels and should continue to be. With AIS
on commercial vessels I think it's pretty reasonable to be expect that the USCG and C&BP to be able to see when these vessels have been off shore. It may even be reasonable to require AIS
on any vessel crossing into our national waters. With respect to the airplane I am required to have a transponder to cross the air defense initiation zone (the aerial equivalent of national waters). Any airplane attempting to cross into this zone without a transponder is subject to interception and possible attack. That pretty much discourages abuse by anyone besides drug runners. C&BP already keeps a large fleet of boats and aircraft for intercepting them.
I simply don't see any logical reason why in the 21st century my constitutional rights should cease to exist simply because I get on a boat.