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United States v. Varlack Ventures, Inc.

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 21419
Nos. No. 97-7489, 149 F.3d 212/(3d Cir., 07/09/1998)

The court holds that evidence of an oil spill obtained by the U.S. Coast Guard in a warrantless search of a ferry in U.S. territorial waters is admissible. The court first holds that there is no need to decide whether the ferry's captain enjoyed a reasonable expectation of privacy in the public areas of the ferry, because, even if he did, the Coast Guard officers fulfilled the requirements for conducting a warrantless search of the ferry. The court next holds that contrary to the district court's finding, the ferry was not in drydock but in the water during the search. The court then holds that because the ferry was in the water while undergoing repair, it is covered by 14 U.S.C. §89(a), which authorizes searches on the high seas and waters of the United States. The court further holds that the Coast Guard undoubtedly possessed reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in this case. A witness identified the ferry as the source of an oil spill in Red Hook Harbor, St. Thomas. Later, a Coast Guard officer found oil in the bilge, a hose leading from the bilge to an overboard fitting, and a bilge pump wired illegally. In addition, the captain gave a statement about the spill and acknowledged that he had not reported the spill in Red Hook Harbor or a possible spill in Cruz Bay. The court further holds that 14 U.S.C. §89(a) contains no provision requiring a warrant, and no courts of appeals have required a warrant for searches based upon a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that are conducted pursuant to §89(a). Moreover, the possibility of flight created an exigent circumstance to justify a warrantless search under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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

Counsel for Appellee
Alan D. Smith
Hodge & Francois
1340 Taarneberg Rd., Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas VI 00802
(340) 774-6845

Before Stapleton and Alito, JJ.