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Q & A
Compliance Checks of Boats
Question
Do Fish and Boat Commission waterways conservation officers have authority to stop and board boats and perform safety checks?
Answer
Yes.  Section 901(a)(10) of the Fish and Boat Code authorizes waterways conservation officers, deputy waterways conservation officers and other officers with jurisdiction to enforce the Code to "stop and board any boat" for purposes of "inspection for compliance" with the Fish and Boat Code and regulations.  This means that PFBC enforcement officers can stop and board a boat on the waters of the Commonwealth to inspect it for compliance with boating safety regulations.

Compliance inspections differ from enforcement stops in that an officer doesn't need probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a violation to stop a boat for a compliance inspection. When doing a safety compliance check, officers ordinarily will state the purpose of the stop.  The officers will do an inspection of the boat and the safety equipment on board to ensure compliance with standards and the regulations.  A compliance inspection may include checks on many items.  Among the items that may be checked are:

  • Personal flotation devices. Life jackets save lives and they are mandatory equipment on all boats.
  • Fire extinguishers when required.  The inspecting officers may inspect any required fire extinguisher to make sure it is operational and its expiration date has not passed.
  • Ventilation systems to ensure they are functional.
  • Navigation Lighting.
  • Compliance with visual and audible signal requirements.
  • Compliance with loading and horsepower limits.

Although there are no Pennsylvania cases specifically dealing with boating compliance inspections, courts in other states have upheld stopping boats for compliance checks when authorized by state law.  The courts have found that these inspections do not run afoul of the constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  For example, in a number of cases, boaters whose boats were stopped without any individualized suspicion or probable cause were charged with and convicted of operating under the influence of alcohol.  It is not uncommon for boats to be stopped and boarded for the purpose of compliance inspections. These inspections play an important part in boating safety compliance in Pennsylvania.

Boaters should  be aware that boats lying at their regular mooring or berth are not subject to routine compliance inspections.  In such cases, the boats may be boarded by officers executing a search warrant or in other circumstances (probable cause, consent, exigent circumstances) when a law enforcement officer can properly board the boat. 

Boaters should know that the U.S. Coast Guard has extensive authority to stop and board boats on waters under its jurisdiction without probable cause for purposes of compliance checks and other purposes.

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