Thursday, June 5, 2008
Court of Appeal Upholds Searches of Cruise Ship Passenger Cabins
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth Amendment does not apply to customs agents’ searches of passenger cabins on cruise ships arriving from foreign countries, this district’s Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Ruling that such searches are “routine” border searches which customs agents need no suspicion of criminal activity to conduct, Div. Eight affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arthur Jean Jr.’s order denying Mark Stevens Laborde’s motion to suppress methamphetamine found when officials searched his stateroom on a Carnival Cruise Line vessel just after it docked in Long Beach.
Customs agents decided to conduct the 6:20 a.m. search of the stateroom Laborde shared with his girlfriend upon the vessel’s return from a cruise to Mexico after analysis of a crew and passenger list provided by the cruise line showed Laborde had previously been arrested on narcotics and drug paraphernalia charges.
Laborde was asleep when his girlfriend, responding to a knock at the door, allowed the officers to enter after they informed her they were going to conduct a cabin exam. The officers identified themselves a second time to Laborde after he was awakened, and then—after Laborde arose, dressed and denied having anything illegal—searched the cabin finding both the drug, and a glass pipe that Laborde admitted was his.
After Jean denied Laborde’s motion to suppress the evidence, concluding that the search could be conducted without reasonable suspicion because it was a border search, Laborde pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance, and was placed on probation for three years under Proposition 36.
Laborde appealed, but the Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Candace Cooper, affirmed Jean’s ruling.
Cooper first agreed with Jean that the search was a border search because the first port where a vessel docks on arrival from a foreign country is the functional equivalent of an international border, and noted that that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that customs agents have “plenary authority” to conduct routine searches that are not subject to any reasonable suspicion, probable cause or warrant requirement.
Distinguishing the search of Laborde’s cabin from a “nonroutine” search, such as a strip or body cavity search requiring a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity because it so intrusive, Cooper wrote that the search of Laborde’s cabin was routine, and therefore proper, because it did not “implicate any dignity interest of the person whose cabin is searched.”
“[T]he privacy interest in one’s cabin at the border can surely be no greater than the privacy interest in one’s person and effects, both of which are subject to routine search at the border,” she wrote.
Cooper swept aside Laborde’s argument that the embarrassment of being ordered out of his cabin into the hallway during the early-morning search rendered it nonroutine, saying it was “hard to see” how that was any more embarrassing than any other search of one’s person and effects at the border.
She also flatly rejected his claim that a border search prompted by a criminal investigatory motive was invalid, writing that the contention had “no merit.”
Cooper noted that the court did not mean to suggest that there were no circumstances under which the search of a passenger cabin at the border might be deemed nonroutine, and left open the possibility that a border search could be unreasonable if carried out in a particularly offensive manner.
“This, however, is not such a case,” she said.
Justice Laurence D. Rubin and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anne H. Egerton, sitting by assignment, joined Cooper in her opinion.
The case is People v. Laborde, B199726.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company