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Coast Guard Maritime Law Enforcement

The U.S. Coast Guard upholds the laws at sea … many laws.



Since Aug. 4, 1790, the U.S. Coast Guard has been enforcing the law. From protecting the nation’s trade regulations and tariffs to catching pirates and smugglers, the service has been America’s symbol of law enforcement authority in the maritime domain.

This authority is clearly spelled out in 14 USC 2: “The Coast Guard shall enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable laws on, under and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

In our ports, the Coast Guard partners with federal, state, local, tribal, and industry stakeholders to monitor critical infrastructure, conduct vessel escorts and patrols, and inspect vessels and facilities.

Coast Guard active-duty commissioned, warrant, and petty officers are authorized by 14 USC 89 to enforce federal law on waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction and in international waters, as well as on all vessels subject to U.S. jurisdiction (including U.S., foreign, and stateless vessels).


CGC Morgenthau smallboat crewmembers and China Fisheries Law EnforcementCommand personnel embark the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean May 27, 2014. The Coast Guard is the only U.S. agency with the infrastructure and authority to project law enforcement presence throughout the 3.36-million-square-mile U.S. exclusive economic zone and in key areas of the high seas. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau

The U.S. maritime border is as big as it is diverse. The Coast Guard must cover the nation’s ports and inland waters, territorial seas, the contiguous zone, and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) out to 200 nautical miles from shore (and beyond in some cases for extended continental shelf claims). Threats to America’s maritime domain have the potential to adversely affect our national security and economic prosperity, even far from the sea.


Transnational Organized Crime

Today the threats are many, the adversaries sophisticated, and the stakes enormous.

Just issued in September 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard “Western Hemisphere Strategy: Ensuring a Secure Nation, Prosperous Markets, and Thriving Oceans,” cites a National Defense University report on the impact of transnational organized crime (TOC) and illicit trade, which states that:

“By some estimates, global yearly economic loss to TOC in illegal drugs, human trafficking, and illegal fishing (combined) exceeds $750 billion. Moreover, networks that evolve and mature for one illicit purpose have shown an increasing propensity to diversify their nefarious activities. In the next decade, the lines between networks initially formed for illicit activities including drug smuggling, human trafficking, or terrorist activity will continue to blur.”

In the 2011 White House “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” President Barack Obama wrote in his opening letter, “The expanding size, scope, and influence of transnational organized crime and its impact on U.S. and international security and governance represent one of the most significant of those [21st century] challenges.”

“Today the threat from TOC is more complicated because criminal networks are more fluid and are using increasingly sophisticated tactics,” the White House document reports. “TOC can exploit the interconnected nature of our modern trading, transportation, and transactional systems that move people and commerce throughout the global economy and across our borders.”

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...