CPB Aircraft Searches: Your Rights And Responsibilities

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AOPA has offered guidance to GA pilots if they are met with an intimidating show of force as they're going about their business. (PDF) In the last few weeks there have been widely circulated reports about law-abiding pilots being confronted by heavily armed local cops and federal Customs and Border Protection agents who appear to act as if they have absolute authority to search and interrogate pilots and passengers. "At least 12 of our members have been stopped and had their plane searched by CBP for absolutely no reason at all," said AOPA spokesman Steve Hedges. "We've asked CBP for documents related to the searches, filing a Freedom of Information Act to get it, but so far they have been unresponsive." As always, it's best to be polite with folks carrying semi-automatic weapons but that doesn't mean anyone has to be a pushover.

In every case, the CBP agents appear intent on searching the plane, sometimes with dogs, and that understandably causes some concern with pilots. The legal authority to search may be legally murky and pilots are urged to get on the record as opposing it. They're also advised that if one of the agents so much as turns a screw on the aircraft, he or she might make it unairworthy. AOPA also says the agents seem to think they have the authority to demand logs, written weight and balance calculations and even the airworthiness certificate, but FAR 61.51 clearly specifies that only pilot-related documents are required. AOPA is trying to get the incorrect CBP memo that went out to field staff amended.