[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
It kind of bothered me that here we are on the high seas and we can board vessels not in our own territorial waters. What if somebody could do that to us? So I did what I always do, I asked. Turns out we got the law on our side. All kinds of law.
“We can board any US vessel anywhere in the world,” the XO says, “except for in other countries’ territorial seas.” We have to have probable cause before we can board a suspect vessel, and permission from the government from which the boat is claiming nationality to board another country’s vessel. We did this a while back, two LE boarding teams on two different vessels simultaneously, with our BTMs waiting in the two small boats until we had the permission of the nation concerned to board. There is specific language that goes along with it, too, which must be spoken in the proper order, all to satisfy multiple legal requirements of domestic, foreign and international courts.
I remember when the Captain sent me to fish school in Kodiak in 2004 how impressed I was with the CG attention to legal detail. Most CG cases are so by the book and so well documented that they never go to trial, defense attorneys don’t even bother because they can’t win. I remember also the Alex Haley spent a day doing drills with the Acushnet, testing out a new electronic positioning system so that they’d know exactly where they were when they catch someone shennaniganing around. The CG doesn’t like going to court and they’re not going to let any bad guys try to tell us we didn’t have jurisdiction in the area in which we caught them.
The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says we have the ROV or Right of Visit. Specifically, if they don’t respond to hails on Channel 16 as required by international law, if they have no flag, if there are signs of conflicting claims of nationality such as a Costa Rican life ring on a Panamanian vessel with a Cuban crew, we can board them to discover nationality.
Under US domestic law, the CG has under two different statutes (14 USC 89 and 14 USC 637), among others, a broad grant of LE (law enforcement) authority to board a suspect vessel using “all necessary force to compel compliance.”
There is a lot that goes along with this. Force necessary to ensure compliance may be as simple as us showing up in a cutter with “US Coast Guard” written on the side and our guys off their beam in the small boat dressed out in uniforms and sidearms. Suddenly the skipper finds the mike to his radio. He may not speak English. Okay, we always have an interpreter in the boat.
Or force necessary to ensure compliance may be a drawn weapon. “I know of only one guy who ever had a weapon pointed at him,” the XO says. “He was able to defuse the situation without drawing his weapon.” We have reasonable expectations of how boat operators in general will behave based on over 200 years of conducting boardings at sea, but we never really know for sure. So we’re always ready for the worst.
If a vessel is running away from us and we have just cause, warning shots, and if necessary, disabling shots may be authorized. In a worst case scenario, such as the bad guys shooting first, and I hasten to add that this has happened only once in the 31 years since the CG has been interdicting narcotics, we are authorized to use deadly force. In English, we have the right to defend ourselves. Plus, the presence of unlicensed automatic weapons on board any suspect vessel could be construed as intent to piracy. “Pops’ .22 to shoot a shark caught in a net, okay,” Kevin says, “but not automatic weapons.”
I confess, the first time we sent a boarding team out for real, I panicked. All I could think was, “If you s*********** harm one hair on those kids’ heads, I will personally fire up the 76-mm. myself, and I won’t be throwing any life rings out after I do it.” The XO and Kevin assure me that the drug smugglers know they will go away for a good long time if caught with weapons and drugs together on the high seas.
The focus of the Hitron program is the maritime smuggling of narcotics, as in go fasts, open boats that go very fast (forty-plus knots) from wholesale drug dealers in Central and South America to the retail market in the US. Sometimes they’ll work in concert with a mother ship or ships, either to refuel or to take on contraband. We are authorized to use AUF against them. AUF stands for Airborne Use of Force. That’s where our helo comes in. It’s armed, it’s fast, it’s very manuverable and the aviators are good enough to land on the tossing, heaving deck of a cutter at sea. I doubt any helo aviator gets any better than that.
I can’t say as much as I’d like to about the program because there is no point in alerting the bad guys to how outgunned they are. In the CG there is a checklist for everything, and there is a checklist for AUF, too. It may be tedious but it pays off later because it helps us make our case before we ever get to court. Our helo also takes pictures, lots of pictures. If the go-fast starts dumping contraband, we’ve got a record of them doing it.
Even then (this amazes me) our helo may not issue warning shots and disabling fire on a go-fast in certain situations when the fear is that the smugglers may be at risk of losing their lives.
Because that would turn into, yes, a SAR case, or search-and-rescue.
Which is pretty much where the US Coast Guard came in.