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United States v. Lee

Search On High Seas Lawful

The Supreme Court, in a decision authored by Justice Brandeis, reversed the circuit court of appeals. In the Supreme Court, the government argued that the Coast Guard has authority to visit, search, and seize an American vessel on the high seas beyond the 12-mile limit when probable cause exists that a U.S. law is being violated. The government also argued that the Coast Guard has authority to arrest persons on such vessels when reason exists to believe that a felony is being committed. The government argued further that, in this case, probable cause existed that the Tariff Act and National Prohibition Act were being violated, justifying the seizure of the boat and arrest of the respondents. Regarding the subsequent search of the boat, the government argued that any search made before the boat reached port was valid as an incident of a lawful arrest. However, the government also claimed that the Coast Guard did not search the boat.

The Supreme Court agreed with the government's contentions. Referring to its holding in Maul v. United States (1927), decided on the same day, the Court stated that Coast Guard officers are authorized by federal statute to seize on the high seas beyond the 12-mile limit any American vessel subject to forfeiture for violation of any law respecting the revenue. From that power, Justice Brandeis inferred that Coast Guard officers were also "authorized to board and search such vessels when there is probable cause to believe them subject to seizure for violation of revenue laws, and to arrest persons thereon engaged in such violation." Justice Brandeis drew a distinction between authority based on probable cause and the "belligerent right to visit and search even without probable cause."

The Supreme Court found probable cause to believe that the revenue laws were being violated by the American vessel and the persons on it in such a manner as to render the vessel subject to forfeiture. Comparing the motorboat to an automobile, the Court stated, "search and seizure of the vessel and arrest of the persons thereon, by the Coast Guard on the high seas, is lawful, as like search and seizure of an automobile and arrest of the persons therein, by prohibition officers on land is lawful." The Court also rejected the respondents' contention that the government's subsequent failure to institute proceedings for forfeiture of the motorboat and liquor rendered the seizure and the search illegal.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940United States v. Lee - Significance, Search On High Seas Lawful, Was There A High Seas Search?, Impact, Related Cases