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United States v. Boynes

Citation: 28 ELR 21410
(07/09/1998)

The court holds that evidence of an oil spill obtained by the U.S. Coast Guard in a warrantless search conducted in the British Virgin Islands of a ferry owned by a U.S. citizen is admissible. The court first holds that the Coast Guard had probable cause to search the ferry in the British Virgin Islands. Two Coast Guard officers witnessed the discharge of a dark substance from the ferry in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a subsequent consensual search of the engine room revealed an overflow of oil and a leak in a fuel line. Accordingly, the Coast Guard reasonably believed that another search of the ferry in the British Virgin Islands would result in the collection of further evidence that the ferry's bilge discharge violated U.S. environmental laws. Because the Coast Guard possessed probable cause, the court notes that it has no need to address the applicability of the Fourth Amendment to searches by U.S. law enforcement officials of U.S. citizens in foreign countries. However, assuming, arguendo, that the Fourth Amendment is applicable, the court next holds that there is no need to ascertain whether a warrant is required in these circumstances. The seaworthiness of the ferry gave rise to the risk of flight, meaning that the Coast Guard officers were justified by exigent circumstances in conducting a warrantless search of the vessel. Therefore, the court reverses the order of the district court suppressing evidence from the Coast Guard's search of the ferry in the British Virgin Islands and remands the case for further proceedings.

Counsel for Appellant
Howard P. Stewart
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Counsel for Appellees
Samuel H. Hall Jr.
Birch, DeJongh, Hindels & Hall
Poinsettia House at Bluebeard's Castle
P.O. Box 1197, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas VI 00804
(809) 774-1100

Before Stapleton and Alito, JJ.