Friday, December 28, 2001
C.A. Upholds Drug Conviction Based on Coast Guard ‘Safety’ Search
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Coast Guard didn’t need a warrant to search a sailboat it had boarded in response to a distress call, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Such post-SAR (search and rescue) searches are an appropriate means of enforcing maritime safety laws, Justice Timothy Reardon wrote for Div. Four. “[T]he government has a strong, legitimate public safety interest in detecting violations of safety regulations and securing compliance therewith,” the jurist wrote.
The panel affirmed Steven Eng’s San Francisco Superior Court conviction on charges of possessing heroin and methamphetamine for sale. Eng, who had two prior drug convictions, drew a two-year prison sentence on a negotiated plea of no contest after his motion to suppress was denied.
Eng was charged in August of last year after the Coast Guard responded to an early evening call indicating that medical assistance was needed on board a disabled vessel outside the San Leandro channel.
When the officers boarded the boat, they found Eng and another man, who was apparently about to have a seizure. The man was transferred to a Coast Guard vessel and brought to a waiting ambulance.
The Coast Guard then towed Eng and his boat to the marina and conducted a post-SAR safety inspection, in accordance with its usual procedures.
According to testimony at the suppression hearing, one of the officers found a baggie containing what appeared to be brown tar heroin on the floor. Another officer then stepped through a cut-out hatch, removed a piece of wood, and spotted an open camera case containing drug paraphernalia.
At that point, the officers testified, they removed Eng from the boat and conducted a thorough search for contraband and found the methamphetamine.
Reardon, concluding that the motion was properly denied, noted that federal law “gives the Coast Guard plenary authority to stop vessels for document and safety inspections,” subject to constitutional restrictions.
The Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches doesn’t bar a legitimate safety search, the justice said, particularly where a boat is disabled and adrift without working lights after dark and without a working radio, as Eng’s was.
Reardon went on to say that Supreme Court rulings upholding warrantless administrative searches apply to the Coast Guard.
“[M]aritime activity is closely regulated,” the jurist noted, saying the search was not overly intrusive. Post-SAR searches, he added, “eminently reasonable in light of the particular need to ensure that vessels already known to have encountered difficulty on United States waters are in compliance with safety regulations.”
The case is People v. Eng, A094853.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company