NPR reported today that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine Operations will alter its policy that has led to private aircraft pilots being searched, sometimes at gunpoint, by law enforcement officers.
How Customs and Border Protection (CPB) will alter its policy is not yet clear. Currently, CPB operate a tracking center, which monitors privately operated flights. They look for patterns that suggests drug transportation, such as taking an alleged drug route or flying in a manner that evades radar. When they find suspicious activity, CPB can alert law enforcement at the flight’s destination. Unfortunately, various law enforcement officials have used that information to aggressively search the planes of anyone suspected.
Tom and Bonnie Lewis love to fly airplanes so much that they live in a residential airpark near Fort Worth, Texas, where their garage is a hangar.
Two years ago, they packed their bags, loaded them into the airplane, and took off for Nashua, New Hampshire, to visit their daughter and her family. Mid-route, they stopped at an airport in Frankfort, Kentucky, to refuel and spend the night, when they noticed that a small jet had landed directly behind them, with no radio communication.
Four federal agents shouldering assault rifles scrambled out of the jet and surrounded the Lewis’s little two-seater plane, asking for IDs.
“Asking where we’d been, basically checking us out,” says Tom Lewis. “It didn’t take them too long to figure out they had grandma and grandpa that were taking a trip to New Hampshire to visit the grandkids.”
When the Constitution conflicts with the aims of the War on Drugs, the Constitution frequently loses. CPB acknowledges that in 68% of the cases this year where law enforcement was notified, no illegal activity was found. The NPR story quotes Eddie Young, a deputy assistant commissioner at CPB, as saying, “A 32-percent success rate is not bad in the law enforcement community.” That Mr. Young could soberly make that defense of the old policy is more than a little appalling. For the innocent 68%, the trauma of being searched at gunpoint is apparently an acceptable cost of the War on Drugs.
Assuming the policy is in fact changed, it will be because most pilots are more wealthy and influential than the average citizen. Most people just have their complaints ignored when law enforcement officers violate civil liberties.