Last summer, I participated in a vessel safety check conducted by members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The men who conducted the inspection were very professional — in fact I was surprised by their very businesslike and “no-nonsense” approach to the whole process. I was also surprised by their uniforms, which appeared to be the same as those that are worn by active duty Coast Guard personnel. I had always assumed that the Auxiliary was a civilian organization comprised of local boating volunteers. Is this right? What exactly is the Coast Guard Auxiliary? Is it a reserve arm of the Coast Guard? What is their legal authority?
The Coast Guard Auxiliary operates under the direct authority of the Coast Guard Commandant, but its members are civilian volunteers, and as such, the organization is not a reserve branch of the service. They occupy a unique position in the public service community, subject to both civilian and military authority at the same time.
The Auxiliary is administered under Title 14, Part II of the United States Code, which grants the organization “such rights, privileges, powers and duties as may be granted to them by the Commandant.” The practical application of this is to allow the Coast Guard to delegate an extremely wide range of Coast Guard duties to the Auxiliary, so long as that duty does not involve the carrying or use of a weapon.
Members of the Auxiliary, when assigned to specific duties, are vested with the same power and authority as members of the regular Coast Guard assigned to similar duties. (US Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, section 5.31).
As such, the characterization of the Auxiliary as a bunch of “local boating volunteers” really does understate their role in the maritime safety function of the Coast Guard.
A Coast Guard “Auxiliarist” who is acting within the scope of his or her assigned duties enjoys many of the same benefits that are extended to active duty Coast Guard personnel, including immunity from personal liability for negligence. This may have a direct impact on a recreational boater whose boat is damaged in the course of a negligent safety inspection. The Auxiliary takes great care to avoid that type of incident, but if it were to occur, the Auxiliary member would be shielded from liability and the boat owner would need to consider a lawsuit against the federal government.
Regarding the uniforms, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary do wear the same uniform as regular Coast Guard officers, but they wear a modified insignia and they do not use the corresponding military titles associated with ranks in the regular Coast Guard.
The Auxiliary was formed ?prior to World War II, and was very active in the support of coastal defense operations during the war. After the war their role was scaled back to the civilian duties that most boaters are familiar with, such as courtesy safety inspections.
Since 9/11, the role of the Coast Guard has changed, and the support function of the Auxiliary has expanded accordingly. The primary mission of the Auxiliary is still centered on the promotion of boater safety and education, but they also work on projects ranging from the processing of merchant mariner documents to Hurricane Katrina recovery operations.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.