What 4th Amendment? Department of Homeland Security targets General Aviation Pilots

What 4th Amendment? Department of Homeland Security targets General Aviation Pilots

Over the past five and half years, many of us have noticed a whittling away of our Constitutional rights. This has taken many forms: pro-life organizations filing for 501c3 designations have been unlawfully asked to provide transcripts of the prayers that their members said, citizens helping clean up the voting process in their areas have been audited by the IRS, and now private pilots are being met on the tarmac of small general aviation airports by armed Customs and Border Patrol agents who search their planes based on where their flights originated.

Armed Customs and Border Patrol agents meet a private plane

David Brodsky of Missouri flew his uncle’s plane home to Booneville from Concord, California only to have his plane met on the tarmac by four unmarked police cars. The officers asked to search the plane and explained that they had targeted his plane because he flew out of California, which resulted in his plane being tagged as a possible drug smuggling flight by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) says that its members have reported more than 40 searches in recent months executed by both Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and local police. According to a recent article on the topic by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the searches follow a similar pattern: the flight is tagged by agents according to the location (originating in California and flying close to border states is a tag worthy offense) and the planes are met on the tarmac by officers who search the plane. However some of these searches are not so pedestrian and sound like something out of a Hollywood action movie.

Pilot Gabriel Silverstein

The case of Gabriel Silverstein is one that played out like a movie scene. Mr. Silverstein had his plane searched twice on a cross-country trip this spring. The AOPA blog covered his story and describes what Silverstein was put through in an interview:

“Silverstein said about half a dozen local officers arrived after he walked into the FBO with his aviation papers, as the federal agents had requested, for his second “ramp check” in four days. Federal agents in tan jumpsuits soon directed him back outside, where the local police dog was already at work.

“As I approached the plane, the K-9 handler didn’t ask my permission, he informed me that the dog was inspecting the plane and then informed me that I had to open the cargo door, the baggage door,” Silverstein said in the telephone interview. “There was intimidation, very clearly there … it was not a question of may we check your plane, or hey, by the way, just walking around. Silverstein, the pilot in command, raised objections and was given three options: wait inside the FBO, wait quietly outside, or be detained in handcuffs. An instrument-rated private pilot and AOPA member, Silverstein is also an active real estate investment banker who has never committed a crime, he said.”

The agents on one of the stops had clearly targeted Silverstein since he had recently flown out of Colorado, one of two states who recently made marijuana possession legal.
“Silverstein said the agents in Iowa City urged him to confess to possessing a small amount of marijuana, suggesting such a confession could cut the whole process short. (Silverstein told AOPA he is a teetotaler, and never indulges much less possesses marijuana, nor did he have any reason to believe others had put marijuana in the aircraft.) Silverstein said agents told him they believed marijuana should be legal, but they had to enforce federal law. He said the agents “clearly suggested” they were interested in his aircraft because he had stopped in Colorado, a state that recently legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. The only thing Silverstein actually saw the dog pay any attention to after the aircraft’s contents were spread on the ramp was a box containing oil and de-icing fluid, a little of each of which had spilled on the box.”
This story would have escaped my attention except that I happen to have a general aviation pilot in my family. No matter how you feel about security in a post 9/11 world, I know that our readers believe in the Constitution and will bristle at this clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. I think that the closing paragraph of the article outlining Silverstein’s harrowing experiences sums it up perfectly:
“Whatever background and motivation they had for doing this, they’re exercising and abusing police powers of the state in a way that is absolutely counter to not just the Constitution, but everything general aviation is supposed to do for this country and for this economy,” Silverstein said. “The freedoms that our armed service people defend every day and die for are so critical to this country, and I believe that despite the unfair assault on GA over the last several months in politics, I’m one of the examples of general aviation being a critical infrastructure component to this country’s job growth and economic base.”

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  • GWB says:

    When offered those three choices, I would have held out my wrists and said, “Bring it, big guy. Yours will be the first name and badge number on the lawsuit. You have no jurisdiction, you have no warrant and you have no probably cause. Now get away from my plane so I can fuel and get out of here.”

    (I have a commercial ticket – Instrument, multi-, single- – that I haven’t exercised in years.)

  • Jennifer says:

    Amen to your comments! My family member who is a pilot would have said the same thing. Possibly followed by “Get your ass off my tarmac!”

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