Growing up in Massachusetts, we had Ernie Boch. Marylanders have Jack Antwerpen, a car dealer who floods the airwaves, assuring buyers that his response to a reasonable offer will always be “Yes!” Antwerpen, the on-air brand messenger, obviously can’t help himself.
He named his 110-foot motoryacht Yes, and when the Coast Guard boarded Yes recently in New York’s East River and asked Jack whether he was carrying firearms, he answered, “Yes.”
Before I get into the story and what I think it means, let me issue a disclaimer to spare your keyboards from the spittle that will issue as you chastise me. This blog is not about the men and women of the Coast Guard, their courtesy, professionalism, the challenges they face or the fact that we live in a dangerous world. Nor am I questioning the Coast Guard’s right to board any vessel at any time; unfortunately (in my opinion) that power is settled case law.
This blog is about government policy and whether we are wasting time and money that could be better spent. Let me remind you that this is the Coast Guard that’s constantly complaining to Congress that it has too many missions and too few resources to accomplish them.
Antwerpen, his wife and daughter were cruising to Boston July 27 when the Coast Guard conducted a routine safety inspection. According to news reports, Antwerpen admitted he had guns, and this admission prompted the Coast Guard detail to summon the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit. Police seized a revolver, a rifle and two shotguns from what was described as a “locked vault.”
A police spokesman was quoted as saying Antwerpen had an expired carry permit. In New York even the least serious firearms possession charge — a misdemeanor — carries a penalty of as much as a year in jail. Police detained Antwerpen, issued him a ticket to appear and released him.
“He was a gentleman and acknowledged that there were firearms on board and acknowledged that they were his firearms,” The Baltimore Sun newspaper quoted the spokesman as saying.
A couple years have gone by since I wrote a series of blogs after I was boarded in South Carolina by what I called an “everything bagel” of law enforcement — Coast Guard, DEA, ICE, state and city police. At the time I questioned the cost-effectiveness of randomly boarding recreational vessels.
I have asked for, but no one has been able to produce, statistics that show how successful this policy of “safety inspections” has been at stopping crime/terrorism/accidents. I suspect that if statistics were kept we would find hundreds of citations for expired (but functioning) flares and at least one poor car dealer who forgot to re-up for his weapons permit. I also suspect that most law enforcement and Coast Guard boardings that have resulted in criminal arrests or other worthy outcomes have been the result of old-fashioned probable cause, not a random boarding.
What I am suggesting is that the Coast Guard use probable cause, not “Look, there’s a boat over there,” as the standard that determines what it boards. The Coast Guard retains the power to board any boat at any time, but as a matter of policy it could choose to use probable cause for day-to-day operations. When I suggested this to a pair of retired Coast Guard captains last year, they looked at me as if I had two heads — “This is the way we’ve always done it” — but I still think this simple change of outlook would be better all around.
Think of how much more efficient this is for catching lawbreakers and preventing accidents. Instead of randomly selecting my boat or yours, the Coast Guard would conduct boardings based on information from its intelligence files, tips from citizens and from its own observations of suspicious or unsafe behavior — old-fashioned, Constitution-friendly probable cause. Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t on a watch list — or running over manatees or smuggling people from Cuba or whatever — get to enjoy our boats and the sense of freedom we associate with being on the water.
At this point in the narrative a reader might suggest that the Coast Guard needs to board our boats to train its people on how to board boats. Let me suggest that it use a readily available group of people for this purpose, rather than you or me. The volunteers of the Coast Guard Auxiliary would probably enjoy the role of boardee; most of the rest of us do not. But if you did want to do your part for Coast Guard training, there could be a mechanism that lets you get on a list of boat owners who would enjoy being boarded. Send them a float plan.
DIME DROPPED, WHY?
One more observation: Did the Coast Guard really have to bring in the New York police? Antwerpen was obviously not a threat. He cooperated. For all we know he didn’t reapply for his permit because his administrative assistant, who normally files the paperwork, had just retired and moved to Boca. Couldn’t they cut the guy a break?
Couldn’t the boarding officer have warned him of his precarious status vis-a-vis New York’s stringent gun laws, and perhaps that he could get into even worse trouble when he arrived in Massachusetts, which has gun laws that are even more stringent?
(These gun possession pitfalls, by the way, will be addressed in a “Guns & Governments” seminar at the TrawlerFest in Stevensville, Maryland, Sept. 27-Oct. 1.)
If we can’t switch to a probable-cause boarding policy, maybe we should at least try to offset the cost of the safety inspection program with sponsorships — like NASCAR. Orion, ACR and Pains Wessex would pay to have their logos pasted on the superstructures of Coast Guard boats.
It’s the least they could do. The U.S. government effectively subsidizes their business. Think of it: A product that has been proved to function after a decade in storage must nevertheless be repurchased every few years while tens of thousands of government man hours are spent boarding us, reminding us to make those very purchases.
Good luck, Mr. Antwerpen. Sorry you had to be the guy whose case makes my point. And by the way, you didn’t really need those guns to cruise New England. The natives are friendly, even to car dealers.