Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Rules that "Reasonable Suspicion" Is Not Required to Search Cabins of Crew Members During a Border Search of a Foreign Cargo Vessel

In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered the issue of whether the cabins of the crew members of a foreign cargo vessel, calling at a U.S. port, may be searched for contraband without reasonable suspicion. In United States v. Alfaro-Moncada, No. 08-16442 (11th Cir. 2010), the Court found such searches to be proper under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and affirmed the conviction of the Defendant-Appellee crew member. 

In Alfaro-Moncada, the MV RIO MIAMI, a foreign cargo ship traveling from the Dominican Republic, entered the United States and docked at the Antillean Marine inside Miami, Florida. At that time, officials with United States Customs and Border Protection, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, boarded the ship to conduct an agricultural re-boarding to inspect the vessel for prohibited agricultural materials. The officials, called the Agricultural Enforcement Team, inspected the ship from bow to stern, including the crew members' cabins. During the search of the Defendant-Appellee's cabin, the officials discovered two (2) DVD covers, displaying images that appeared to be young girls engaging in sexual acts. After watching portions of both DVDs, the officials confirmed that they contained child pornography, and Alfaro-Moncada was taken into custody. A grand jury indicted Alfaro-Moncada, charging him with possession of child pornography, and he moved to suppress the DVDs and his statements about them, contending that the search of his cabin violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The suppression motion was denied; Alfaro-Moncada was found guilty following a one (1) day trial; and the district court sentenced him to eighty-seven (87) months in prison. On appeal, Alfaro-Moncada argued, inter alia, that his motion to suppress should have been granted because the search of his cabin violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

In determining whether Alfaro-Moncada's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the Fifth Circuit first concluded that the Agricultural Enforcement Team was authorized to search the cabin by 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a), a statute allowing an "officer of the customs" to search a vessel and "every part thereof" at "any place in the United States". The Court then determined that because the vessel (including the Defendant-Appellee's cabin) was docked at the functional equivalent of the U.S. border, the case was a border search case. Accordingly, the Court next considered the reasonableness of the search by weighing its intrusion on Alfaro-Moncada's Fourth Amendment rights against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.

After carefully examining the purposes of permitting warrantless border searches without any requirement of reasonable suspicion or probable cause, as well as the reasonableness of searches conducted in analogous situations, the Court held, inter alia, that the suspicionless search of the crew member's cabin on board a foreign cargo ship while docked at the Antillean Marine was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court first highlighted the lesser expectation of privacy that an individual has at the border, as opposed to the government's strong interest in searching at the border for purposes of national self-protection. The Court was mindful of the fact that a cabin is a crew member's "home" and that a home "receives that greatest Fourth Amendment protection."  However, the "critical distinction" noted by the Court was that the "home" in this instance was at the border and capable of posing a threat to national security: "Given the dangers we face, the paramount national interest in conducting border searches to protect this nation and its people makes it unreasonable to require any level of suspicion to search any part of a foreign cargo vessel coming into this country. Crew members' cabins are no exception . . . ."

To read a copy of the Eleventh Circuit's decision, click here.

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