Pubdate: Tue, 15 Apr 2014
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Los Angeles Times
Author: Dan Weikel


Federal Tracking System Is Snaring Law-Abiding Private Pilots

Ken Dobson, a retired police officer, said he received quite a 
welcome when he landed his single-engine Cessna in Detroit two days 
after leaving his home in Palm Desert. Gina Ferazzi

Five sheriff 's cars surrounded the plane and deputies got out with 
guns drawn. Then a helicopter arrived with four federal agents and a 
drug-sniffing dog. They demanded to see Dobson's pilot's license, 
asked about the flight and mentioned that his long trip from Southern 
California was suspicious.

Fearing he would lose his flight credentials if he didn't cooperate, 
Dobson consented to a search of his plane. But instead of uncovering 
a trophy-shot cache of pot or cocaine, the officers found luggage, 
golf clubs and an empty Thermos.

"To investigate an innocuous concern like my flight was mystifying to 
me," said Dobson, who flew to Detroit to visit relatives. "My wife 
and I travel long distances in our car to Michigan. That alone does 
not give the police the right to stop me, question me and search my car."

Dobson's Cessna was picked up by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection 
tracking system in Riverside that uses an extensive radar network to 
monitor flights across the nation.

Casting such a wide net has helped authorities apprehend dozens of 
drug smugglers. But the operation also is snaring many more 
law-abiding private pilots, who say federal officers working with 
local police are detaining them and searching their planes without 
legal justification.

The situation has attracted the attention of national organizations 
that represent about 570,000 pilots and 10,000 aviation-related 
businesses. Between them, the groups have logged complaints from 50 
to 70 pilots whose flights were entirely within the U.S. All were let 
go, some with apologies.

Those pilots included business owners, retirees, a real estate 
financier who was detained twice in one trip, a university professor 
whose car - after leaving an airport - was surrounded by dozens of 
officers. Even retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Hank Canterbury was 
tracked. Canterbury, a fighter pilot in Vietnam who now lives in 
Arizona, said he was stunned to learn that federal officers had 
inquired about him at a Texas airport where he landed.

During the last three years and five months ending in February, the 
tracking operation investigated 1,375 flights. Of those, authorities 
intercepted 212 at airports and made 39 drug-related arrests. An 
additional eight were referred to the Federal Aviation Administration 
for possible enforcement.

Officials of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. have taken their 
concerns to members of Congress, including Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) 
and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Wanting to ensure that federal law 
enforcement is complying with constitutional protections against 
unwarranted searches and seizures, they have asked Customs and Border 
Protection for an explanation.

"There is no evidence of any criminal activity in the AOPA 
incidents," Graves said. "If law enforcement is screwing this up, 
they have done a huge disservice to the public. An erratic flight, a 
long flight or not filing a flight plan is not probable cause" to stop pilots.

Customs and Border Protection officials defend their tracking 
operation, saying it plays an important role in the war on drugs and 
protecting national security.

They say drug smugglers often rely on aircraft, and that in two acts 
of domestic terrorism since 2002, pilots rammed small planes into 
buildings, including an IRS office in Texas.

Agency officials say they dispatch officers to check flights and 
detain pilots based on a legal standard known as reasonable 
suspicion, which can be deduced from a series of facts that suggest 
the possibility of wrongdoing.

Planes are not searched, they say, unless pilots consent or officers 
have warrants based on probable cause; that is, enough evidence to 
indicate a crime has probably occurred. Warrants are not required for 
searches at the border or if evidence is in plain view, people are in 
imminent danger or evidence faces immediate destruction.

Determining what flights to intercept starts at the Air and Marine 
Operations Center at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside. Able to 
tap 700 radar installations in the U.S. and neighboring countries, 
the center can track up to 50,000 aircraft and ships at any time.

Staff members scrutinize thousands of flights each day looking for 
what they consider abnormalities. Usually, one or two aircraft 
warrant further investigation. Out of those, only one every few days 
is checked out at airports by federal and local authorities.

During the initial review, trackers consider such things as aircraft 
type, routes, altitudes, f light distances, where flights originate, 
whether flight plans are filed, the use of small airports and the 
identities of pilots, passengers and registered owners. Tips from 
confidential sources also are important.

Constitutional law and civil rights attorneys say, however, that 
detentions of private pilots and searches of their aircraft can raise 
4th Amendment issues. The amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures.

In drug-smuggling cases, lower courts have both thrown out and upheld 
the causes used by federal law enforcement to stop and search 
airplanes. But there are no U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to 
aircraft, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and 
dean of the UC Irvine law school.

Because the high court has given police some latitude to search cars 
during a legitimate vehicle stop, Chemerinsky said justices might 
grant similar leeway for aircraft searches if such a case came before them.

Though customs officials contend their results are reasonable, pilot 
association officials say arrests occurred in only 18.3% of the stops 
and about 3% of all the flights scrutinized.

Two AOPA pilots, one from California and one from Louisiana, said 
their hotel rooms were searched without warrants. Still others 
reported that they were confronted at gunpoint by authorities wearing 
SWAT gear and that officers who were not trained mechanics removed 
aircraft panels and engine cowlings during searches, raising safety concerns.

Other pilots said they were told their flights were intercepted 
because of long travel distances, frequent course changes, landings 
at remote airports and questionable profiles such as flying east from 
California - all things they considered common occurrences in general aviation.

"It's supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but here 
we have Big Brother watching," said AOPA President Mark Baker. "The 
number of arrests are laughable for all the work they do. This looks 
like an agency in search of a mission."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom