Are Boating Safety Checks Legal?

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is notorious for performing "safety checks" on boats being operated on Iowa waters.  Boaters are often pulled over on the water by Department Natural Resources conservation officers to ensure that all the safety equipment regulations are being obeyed.  These so-called "safety-checks" can result in additional investigations and charges such as boating while intoxicated, if the officer's suspicions are triggered during that inspection.

People want to know.  Are these safety checks legal?  At GRL Law, our position is, absolutely not.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as Article 1, Section 8, of the Iowa Constitution prohibit the government from interfering with a person’s privacy and liberty unless there is sufficient suspicion of wrong-doing.  When a member of law enforcement, in these cases a conservation officer, instructs a boater to stop what they are doing and submit to their authority, the person is no longer free to go on about their business.  This is what is called in constitutional law, a seizure.  The constitution requires a legal justification to interfere with a citizen’s liberty and privacy rights.  Stopping a boat being operated on the water requires a legal basis to do so.
For a seizure to be constitutionally valid, the law enforcement officer must have probable cause to believe the individual to be stopped has committed a legal offense of some sort.  Mere suspicion or a hunch is insufficient.  The officer must be able to identify specific facts that he/she observed that would lead to a reasonable conclusion that an offense had been committed or was in the process of being committed.  In other words, the constitution does not allow officers to stop citizens just to check if they are doing everything right.  Officers must first observe a violation of a boating law or have reason to believe the occupants of the boat are committing some other crime, before they are constitutionally allowed to stop the vessel.
The Department of Natural Resources will argue that the law allows officers to stop vessels to conduct boat inspections.  The law they are referring to is found in Iowa Code section 462A.20 which grants members of the Department of Natural Resources and police officers the legal authority to inspect vessels for their seaworthiness.  Similar laws exist related to the inspection of vehicles on the roads as well.  However, the Iowa Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court have still ruled that law enforcement must observe a legal violation or have suspicion of another crime before being permitted to stop a vehicle. 
The fact that a law may attempt to grant law enforcement the legal authority to conduct an inspection does not and cannot override the privacy protections of the Constitution.  The Constitution is always the supreme law of the land and to the extent that a law passed by the legislature is contrary to the Constitution, it is legally invalid and unenforceable.  It is GRL Law’s position that conservation officers may not stop a boater simply to conduct a “safety inspection.”  Stops of vessel's merely to perform "safety inspections" likely violate both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article 1, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution.