The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has notified the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that general aviation pilots and their aircraft continue to be subjected to what appear to be random searches while federal officials have failed to respond to a four-month-old AOPA public records request for information about the searches.
In a letter to Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski, AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead stated that AOPA has been contacted by nearly a dozen members who have been “detained for hours while their documentation, belongings and aircraft,” were searched.
Those searches took place, Mead noted, “even though these flights originated and ended well within the borders of the United States.”
“We cannot identify what authority is granted Customs and Border Protection to monitor general aviation activity within the borders of the United States,” Mead wrote, “and we question the authority under which CBP is conducting this monitoring, stop and search activity.”
AOPA also is now distributing a checklist offering guidance to pilots if they are stopped by law enforcement and a search is requested.
The checklist, designed to fit on a pilot’s kneeboard, advises members of important questions to ask law enforcement and also the regulations regarding searches.
It was made available to AOPA members through a special edition of the association’s ePilot electronic newsletter. It is also available to all pilots at AOPA.org.
AOPA members have recently reported that their aircraft were searched without a warrant by CBP agents, who sometimes acted with local law enforcement. None of the cases have resulted in arrests or the confiscation of contraband.
Several AOPA members agreed to let AOPA file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for CBP records of their search incidents. The first of those requests was made on Feb. 12, 2013.
CBP failed to provide any records within the initial 20-day period required under FOIA. Instead, it has informed AOPA by phone that it will be at least six months before records will be made available.
The AOPA letter notes that local law enforcement agencies have been responsive to records requests, and that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has partially replied to the records request.
The AOPA letter concludes: “If CBP does not respond to our request and produce the requested information and documents by July 20, 2013, this letter serves as notice that we will pursue such other remedies as are available at law and advise the appropriate Members of Congress and congressional committees of this matter and seek their intervention.”