Posted On: December 2, 2008

UNLIKE ROUTINE BORDER INSPECTION, REASONABLE SUSPICION REQUIRED TO SEARCH A PASSENGER’S CABIN ABOARD CRUISE SHIP

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Depending on the circumstances of the search and seizure, the government must show they had reason to search based on a finding of either probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Conducting a search of a person’s home generally requires probable cause; in order to obtain a search warrant. Court’s have held that a person’s temporary abode, such as a hotel room, also requires the same standard prior to conducting a search. However, there are certain instances where the interests of security weighs greater than a person’s right to privacy, such as during a border search conducted by United States Customs officials. The Supreme Court of the United States has held not only that there is an exception allowing for a warrantless search of a person at the physical boundaries of the United States, but also the functional equivalent of the border; this includes the first port where a ship docks upon arrival from a foreign country.

James Edward Whitted was a passenger aboard a cruise ship which had docked in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands upon arrival from the foreign port of St. Maarten. United States Customs officials, along with drug-sniffing dogs, had arrived to perform a routine search of the ship prior to debarkation. As part of the routine search, Customs officials use a computerized database called the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (“TECS”) which lists all vessels arriving from foreign ports and allows the officials to access the ships’ manifests of crews and passengers. Based on this information, officials selected ten staterooms aboard the “Adventure of the Seas” cruise ship to be searched upon the ship’s arrival; Whitted’s room was chosen based on information contained in the database. According to the TECS report, there was a “one-day lookout” for Whitted based on the suspicion of authorities in San Juan, Puerto Rico (one of the ship’s previous destinations), which alerted Customs officials to the possibility of drugs, an outstanding warrant, or something of that nature. The report also showed that Whitted had traveled to other drug source countries in the Caribbean and South America, had a previous criminal record, and bought his cruise ticket at the last minute, paying for it in cash.

Customs officers arrived at Whitted’s cabin where they knocked on the door but received no response. They entered the state room in which Whitted was not present, and prepped the room for the canine search (removed objects which could pose a threat to the canine during the search, i.e. sharp objects). Once prepped, although before being given the command, the canine burst into the room and immediately alerted the officers to a particular bag. The bag contained ladies shoes, men’s sandals, shaving cream, and perfume. After ascertaining from the ship’s crew that no woman was staying in the room with Whitted and observing that the shaving cream container seemed suspicious, officers used x-rays to examine the objects. Inside the objects, officers found pebbles, which later upon field-test was determined to be heroin. When Whitted arrived back to his cabin, officers took an oral declaration from him, stating that it was in fact his stateroom, his bag, and that he had been traveling alone. Whitted was later arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and importation of a controlled substance into the United States.

Whitted was convicted after the District Court ruled not to suppress the drugs found via the search and seizure, and appealed based on the argument that he had a high expectation of privacy in his stateroom; therefore the search of his room was not a routine border inspection but rather required reasonable suspicion. The government responded that the search was routine based on the fact that it was performed regularly by Customs officials rather than on its intrusiveness or the privacy interest at stake. Alternatively, the government also urged that the TECS report gave them reasonable suspicion to search Whitted’s quarters. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Whitted that a stateroom aboard a cruise ship qualifies as a temporary abode and therefore, a search of such room would not be a routine border search but rather require reasonable suspicion. However, the Court also agreed with the government’s contention that reasonable suspicion existed to search Whitted’s cabin. Based on the TECS report, Whitted was placed under a “one-day lookout” after being found suspicious by authorities in Puerto Rico. The report also contained information of past criminal activity, past visits to drug producing countries, and the purchase of his cruise ticket in cash at the last minute; whereas the typical cruise passenger books well in advance using some method of credit. Due to these circumstances, the Court found that the Customs officers had a “particularized and objective basis” for conducting the search of Whitted’s cabin, and under a totality of the circumstances approach, had reasonable suspicion to conduct the search. Whitted’s motion to suppress the evidence against him was denied and his conviction was subsequently upheld.

Drug offenses are serious matters which involve serious penalties. If you have been charged with a drug offense, there are many defenses which may be available, including challenging the constitutionality of a police search. Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer immediately, so that your situation can be assessed and a defense to your charges can be developed.