The United States has long created laws that are designed to protect the environment. With respect to polluting waterways, there have been numerous laws and international treaties created to protect the world’s waterways. World bodies like the International Maritime Organization and others have long advocated for punishment in an effort to conserve clean water and compel cleanup when pollution occurs.
At the same time, United States laws have recognized limits to what the government can do as a safeguard against overbearing and unnecessary intrusion into this regulation.
One such policing power, with limitations, allows for the Coast Guard to inspect watercraft that it reasonably suspects is polluting the water without permit. This is under the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, or the Act. At the same time, the Act also allows the target of such an investigation to sue the government if the enforcement is overbearing and without merit. While the law has been in existence since the early to middle 1970s, courts have rarely heard cases that discuss this issue. The recent Angelex case highlights this issue and what the test is to determine whether the government overstepped its bounds.
In the judicial cannon of the American court system, judges have long issued various tests to apply and determine law. The most well known of these tests are the Supreme Court of the United States making rulings in regards to different situation. For instance, there is rational basis scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and strict scrutiny that applies to Constitutional cases. These tests were used numerous times to determine whether laws or policies that local, state, and federal governments applied passed Constitutional muster.
As an example, various laws, when they were applied, showed racial bias against certain minorities. Provided that it passed the Washington v. Davis test (a different test), Courts would apply strict scrutiny to determine whether such laws should be struck down under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.
In 2012, the Coast Guard boarded a ship in Coastal Florida that it suspected of illegally polluting the water. The Coast Guard held the ship under arrest for several days until it released the ship. In 2015, Angelex sued the Coast Guard, a government entity, for monetary damages based on its overbearing effort to harm the ship under the Act.
The presiding Court noted how the Act, despite being over 40 years old since it was enacted, has never been challenged. To determine whether the Coast Guard overstepped its boundaries, the Court applied a balancing test that is dependent on the facts and circumstances of the case. In other words, the Coast Guard has a right to a reasonable arrest and inspection of a ship if it reasonably suspects that the ship is illegally polluting the water. At the same time, the ship and its owners should only expect that its ship is arrested and investigated for a reasonable amount of time. Beyond that, the ship’s owner has the right to sue under the Act.
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