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Abstract

The purpose of this article is to review the decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Coats and United States v. Harper. Both of these cases arose out of the stopping of the Lady Ellen, an American vessel, by the United States Coast Guard in the Mona Passage on January 26, 1978. These cases provided the first opportunity for the Fourth Circuit to review the authority of the Coast Guard to stop domestic vessels on the high seas without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to believe that the vessel or crew was engaged in illegal activity. In the Coats decision, the Court never reached the substantive issue, finding instead that the single defendant had no standing to contest the stopping of the Lady Ellen. In Harper, the Court found that the stopping and search of the Lady Ellen on the high seas was reasonable under the fourth amendment. This article will review the legislative and judicial background of the decisions, analyze the decisions themselves with attention to subsequent Supreme Court decisions, and predict the implications for federal law enforcement officers and drug smugglers if the novel approach adopted by the Fourth Circuit is later affirmed.

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