AOPA Toughens Stance on Aircraft Searches

** Photo by Gerald L Nino via CBP** Gerald L Nino

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has filed a federal freedom of information request and is marshalling support in Congress as part of a broad effort to stop federal agents from detaining and searching general aviation airplanes flown by pilots who have done nothing wrong.

AOPA has sent a letter to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency asking it to explain its legal authority for conducting stops and searches of GA airplanes, in many cases more than 100 miles from any U.S. border. The association says it has heard from more than 40 pilots who have been stopped by federal agents, some of them more than once on the same trip.

According to a story in AOPA's Aviation eBrief, the acting head of the CBP, Thomas Winkowski, defended the stops by citing regulations that allow any federal agent to detain any private aircraft for any reason as part of a ramp check. "In the course of conducting a pilot certificate inspection, facts may arise meriting further investigation or search to the extent authorized under the Constitution and consistent with federal law," Winkowski wrote in his response to AOPA.

Winkowski noted that possible justifications for aircraft searches may include "reasonable suspicion" that the pilot is "armed and dangerous," or that a person is hiding in the aircraft with intent to "impede or assault" an agent, according to AOPA. The association's lawyers strongly disagree with these justifications, arguing that the federal authority allowing a ramp check "does not empower agents to conduct criminal investigations unrelated to the safe operation of the aircraft."

AOPA attorneys note that any pilot who refuses to provide photo identification, a pilot or medical certificate, or registration document to a law enforcement official on request may be considered in violation of federal aviation regulations but no other law. Enforcement of those regulations is the sole jurisdiction of the FAA, AOPA's eBrief article noted.

As the association awaits an answer to its FOI request, it is attempting to win support in Congress to restrict the ability of federal law enforcement agencies conducting warrantless aircraft searches. In the meantime the association is asking pilots who are stopped by CBP agents to provide details of any incident using this online form.

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