Random Boat Stops and the 4th Amendment

§ 31.124 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code states, “an enforcement officer may stop and board a vessel . . . and may inspect the boat” to determine whether it is in compliance with the various provisions of the Code.

What this means for the average lake-goer is that an officer has the power to stop his or her boat without probable cause or a reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Basically, a law enforcement officer may board any boat, for absolutely any reason and, once aboard, may legally come into contact with evidence of a possible crime, like boating while intoxicated.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas recently discussed whether or not this statute violates the 4th Amendment’s ban on illegal searches. The court held in Schenekl v. State that it does not.

It may be difficult to understand how a random stop, unsupported by probable cause, could be constitutional. The court, in making this determination, applied a two-prong test, weighing the State’s interest in the search against the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law enforcement.

The court held that the State has a strong interest in protecting its citizens and promoting water safety through random safety checks. The court decided that, in contrast, the level of intrusion to the individual during a random boat stop is minimal.

Thus, while it may seem counter-intuitive, the court held random safety checks of boats to be constitutional and not a violation of the 4th Amendment. This information is certainly important to keep in mind while spending time at the lake this spring and summer.

This is important to note, because a lot of BWIs begin with a randam safety check. So far, these randam safety checks are not allowed in Texas for automobiles. I am afraid that is about to change with all the Sobriety Checkpoint legislation MADD is trying to push through our legislature.

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