Aircraft Targeted for Unconstitutional Searches

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits searches and seizures without probable cause.  Since 9/11 searches without probable cause have increased alarmingly, as most Americans must know.  Here is another case that applies to a narrow enough population that most Americans are probably unaware of it.  That population is general aviation pilots and the aircraft they fly.

Here is a report from the August 2013 issue of Flying magazine, which as its name suggests, does not have a political orientation and aims at pilots as its readership base.

The article starts by talking about the freedom of Americans to fly where they want, saying, “This is freedom in its most American expression.  Sadly, that freedom is under attack, and it’s under attack by the government we entrust with protecting it.”  The article describes a government program designed to catch pilots using their aircraft to transport drugs.  “The program is conducted by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.  When the feds target a pilot—details of that process are secret—they determine where the pilot will land and call upon local law enforcement to detain the pilot on the ground until federal agents arrive at the scene in a DHS jet that has been secretly following the flight in question.  Typically, the pilot is held at gunpoint.”

“Once the CPB agents arrive, they question the pilot and search the airplane, sometimes invoking FAA authority to conduct a ramp check on the premise of searching for drugs.  Over the past several months we’ve heard reports of a number of pilots getting stopped in just such a fashion.  In none of these cases did agents find any drugs or make any arrests.”

The article explains that many of the targeted flights departed from the West Coast for a remote destination in the east in a small aircraft.  These are data-driven stops, the article explains.  There is no evidence of any crime, but something the pilots did made those flights appear to the CBP similar to flights that might involve unlawful activity.

These are domestic flights that originate and terminate within the United States and do not cross international borders, making it appear that they are outside the jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection anyway.  And why is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) involved?  If they are looking for drug runners, this appears outside the mandate of both CBP and DHS.  These federal agencies are engaging in activities that way overstep their stated missions.

This program has in common with the NSA data collection program that it is not investigating criminal activity, but rather profiling Americans to try to identify people who might be predisposed to illegal acts.  Pilots are detained at gunpoint with no evidence that they have violated any laws, only because their legal behavior fit a profile that caused them to be targeted.

Most readers of The Beacon don’t fly their own airplanes, but this story is a warning to every American about the threat to their Fourth Amendment rights as a result of the government’s data collection programs.  We have been told, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about,” but this program is an example of why that is not true.

Innocent things you say or do can make you a suspect.  The government is not targeting these pilots based on any illegal activity they engaged in, or any evidence that a crime has been committed.  The NSA is not identifying potential threats based on illegal activity.  Government is targeting people who are engaged in completely innocent and completely legal behavior, when there is no evidence that anything illegal has taken place.  The next person they target could be you.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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