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Today no statute prohibits the mere possession of marijuana or other controlled substances beyond the three-mile offshore territorial limit of the United States; but prosecutions relating to vessels carrying controlled substances outside the territorial waters may be based upon charges of conspiracy to import or distribute the substances. In attempting to halt the recent increase in smuggling of such contraband by sea, the United States Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies have aggressively exercised their powers to stop and search vessels. Two parallel statutory provisions, 14 U.S.C. § 89(a) and 19 U.S.C. § 158,(a), give the Coast Guard and other federal customs authorities virtually plenary power to stop and to search all vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. These provisions make up what has been appropriately described as "one of the most sweeping grants of police authority ever written into U.S. law."

The purpose of this Note is to examine the fourth amendment implications of vessel searches conducted under these statutes. Sections 89(a) and 1581(a) raise serious constitutional questions because they literally permit searches without probable cause or a warrant, even though the Supreme Court has stated that a warrant based upon probable cause is required by the fourth amendment, "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." This Note will focus on the three main fourth amendment exceptions which the government has relied on to justify vessel search authority under these statutes as presently employed: searches in exigent circumstances, border searches, and administrative searches. This Note concludes by proposing a number of possible alternative procedures for conducting administrative searches, which account for the majority of Coast Guard searches today.



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