U.S. Customs and Border Protection takes seriously its mission of “protecting America from all threats.” You might think we have enough threats from abroad to keep our border agents quite busy, but that is not always the case.
Earlier this month, CBP boarded a cruise ship, the MSC Poesia, while it was docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The ship was about to embark on its Jam Cruise, a music-themed tour of the western Caribbean. Perhaps not surprisingly, some cruise-goers apparently planned to have high times while on the high seas. Agents seized small quantities of marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, hash oil, Ecstasy, prescription drugs and drug paraphernalia. The customs agents and K-9 officers were joined in the bust by officials from the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
Customs agents have the authority to conduct patrols at ports of entry to prevent dangerous or illegal objects from being brought into the country. But the MSC Poesia was leaving the country, not arriving. The passengers’ possession of drugs in the U.S. was a crime, but not a crime customs agents are charged with preventing. Why were customs and border patrol agents involved in the raid?
The answer might simply be that they were the folks who brought the dogs. In United States v. Place and Illinois v. Caballes, the Supreme Court found that the sniff of a police dog does not constitute a “search” because it does not reveal any information about which a person can have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the dog alerts its trainers to the possible presence of drugs, the non-canine officers have probable cause to investigate further.
Pay attention to the fact that a CBP spokeswoman did not say how many people were arrested, nor would she give their names. That information would let us follow up the real results of the raid. This looks like an exercise whose purpose was publicity, not law enforcement. While the searches may have been defensible under the Supreme Court’s rulings, I imagine a good criminal lawyer would make quick work of a prosecutor’s case for failing to prove who packed a suitcase, or whether the drugs might have been introduced at the dock or afterward by someone other than the owner. But this would only happen if there were really a prosecution, which is unlikely given the penny-ante results the raids produced.
Is this what we want the Customs and Border Patrol to be doing these days?
We have already seen border agents run roughshod over civil rights — namely the right to travel within U.S. borders in peace — along the Canadian border. Using their authorization to interrogate anyone within a “reasonable distance” of a border regarding immigration status, CBP agents regularly question individuals on buses and trains between U.S. cities. The Lake Shore Limited Amtrak train, which runs between Chicago and New York without ever passing through Canada, is a particular favorite haunt for roving border patrols.
I’m inclined to believe that Americans smoking pot in America doesn’t pose much of a threat to the country, but it’s even more obvious that Americans smoking pot in Honduras or Mexico, the MSC Poesia’s two destinations, poses no threat at all. The Hondurans or the Mexicans might want to stop those drugs from entering their countries. In that case, they can conduct their own searches when passengers disembark.
The potential harm caused by the pre-departure search, on the other hand, is clearly evident. The cruise ship industry is an important part of the Florida economy. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, from fall through spring, at least half a dozen gigantic cruise liners pull into Port Everglades before sunrise and disgorge their passengers, while others arrive in Miami, West Palm Beach and elsewhere around the state. They usually reload and depart on their next cruise just before sunset. Fewer ships call at the port on weekdays and in the summer, but there is still a significant amount of activity.
This keeps a lot of people employed. There are people who work on the ships themselves, people who drive passengers to and from the docks, people who sell food and other goods to passengers during their stopovers, and many others who directly or indirectly depend on the cruise industry for their livelihoods.
While I don’t have any great desire to embark on a cruise myself, I know I’d be even less likely to want to hop on board if doing so meant having my possessions scrutinized by federal agents who are on fishing expeditions. I imagine that others who are more interested in cruises are probably equally uninterested in having their bags examined.
The cruise industry is focused on fostering an environment of hospitality and relaxation. Drug-sniffing dogs don’t create quite the same ambiance as, say, complimentary pina coladas might.
CBP agents have a vital and occasionally dangerous job protecting our borders, yet somehow this is not enough to keep the agency from looking for other things to do. These extracurricular adventures have unpleasant police-state overtones. Someone needs to bring the border patrol, along with its dogs, to heel.