What is the Enforcement Action Database?
The Database collects instances of FCC enforcement activity against unlicensed (pirate) radio stations in the United States. It was initially started with the idea of developing a better understanding of how the FCC conducts enforcement activity against pirate stations. This primarily involves tracking the use of the enforcement tools the FCC has at its disposal, and the patterns of their usage.
While unlicensed broadcasting does occur on other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, the Enforcement Action Database focuses only on activity in the broadcast (AM, FM, and shortwave) bands.
Where does the information come from?
Database information is collected from a variety of sources. The FCC makes some of its enforcement action information available online. Other sources include media reports, postings to popular pirate forums and/or newsgroups, and personal correspondence. Online evidence of enforcement activity is linked to where available.
How Enforcement Activity is Catalogued
FCC enforcement activity against a pirate radio station includes one or more of the following actions:
Visit: FCC field agents drive to a community where a pirate station has been reported and physically locate the station using special radio direction-finding equipment and techniques. Once field agents locate a pirate’s signal they attempt to confirm its physical address and take measurements of the signal strength. The agents may or may not attempt to make contact with people at the address they have identified.
Postal: Following a visit, FCC field agents will either hand-deliver or mail a warning letter, called a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (NOUO), to the address where they have traced the broadcast. The letter documents the agents’ visit and notes the station’s lack of a license. It demands that broadcasts be discontinued immediately and warns further punishment if unheeded.
Notice of Apparent Liability: NALs represent the first step in the FCC’s monetary forfeiture process. They contain the agency’s findings of fact about the operation of particular radio stations, which includes a summary of the field agents’ investigations. Special note is usually taken of the nature and demeanor of any prior contact between agents and station operators. The NAL closes with a declaration that the accused party has broken the Communications Act and requests payment of a fine (usually $10,000) within 30 days, unless appealed by the accused.
Forfeiture: The Forfeiture Notice is the formal invoice from the FCC to an accused party demanding payment of a fine. It summarizes the FCC’s enforcement activity to date against the accused, the reasoning behind its finding of guilt, and includes responses to any appeals. Forfeitures are rarely cancelled, but may be reduced if adequate documentation is produced demonstrating an accused party’s inability to pay.
Collection: Although the FCC has the authority to issue monetary forfeitures it does not have the authority to collect on them. To make fines stick before the five-year statute of limitations runs expires is harder than it seems for the FCC, which much engage U.S. District Attorneys to sue the accused party in civil court. Collections, when successfully executed, may include wage garnishment and liens.
Raid: Station raids always involve other law enforcement agencies. This is necessary because FCC field agents have no police powers of their own. First the FCC secures a warrant of arrest not for a person, but for the offending transmitter, typically from a U.S. District judge or magistrate. Then it taps a police agency (usually Federal Marshals, but may also involve local/state or other federal agencies depending on the circumstance) to execute the warrant. FCC agents oversee the confiscation of all station equipment, including but not limited to the transmitter, antenna, cabling, and studio/webcasting gear. Agents should leave behind a copy of the warrant and any supporting documents, as well as an inventory of what has been confiscated.
Arrest/Conviction/Sentencing: The FCC reserves the (very rare) option of pursuing criminal charges against pirate station operators. Again the U.S. Attorney and Federal Marshals are used to initialize and execute the procedure. Over the course of federal radio regulatory history, six people have been federally criminally charged for unlicensed broadcasting: one was deported, two saw their charges mysteriously dropped, two received short terms of home detention with probation, and one served a nine-month prison sentence.
States are also beginning to assert policing power over the airwaves. It is now a felony to broadcast without a license in Florida. New Jersey is considering ahas classified the act as a misdemeanor. In these instances, FCC agents may not actually prosecute the pirate but often play an assistive role to local law enforcement. Therefore, such enforcement actions are also catalogued here.
Enforcement Table Categories
Each enforcement action generates the following “data points,” represented in the yearly tables:
Name: of station, individual, or both.
Type: of enforcement action (visit, postal, NAL, forfeiture, raid, arrest/conviction/sentencing/collection).
Date: of action – in the case of FCC correspondence, the date on which it was released.
Time: of action, when known (usually from media or personal reports).
Location: city, state.
Reason for contact: when known. Repeated contact is marked as such with links to previous enforcement actions, as when a particular case spans multiple years.
Seizure: whether property was confiscated in connection with the enforcement action.
Summaries and Statistics
The Enforcement Action Database index summarizes all enforcement data collected since 1997. Each year has its own summary page as well. Enforcement activity is broken down by type, location (by state), month, and spectrum (FM or AM/SW). Three averages are also presented:
Average Fine per Action is calculated by summing the number of forfeitures issued by the FCC during the specified time period and dividing by the number of total enforcement actions. It’s a weak attempt to attach a dollar figure cost to each FCC enforcement action, represented as a figure of gross revenue. The actual forfeiture collection rate makes this statistic wildly optimistic.
Points of Note
1. FCC enforcement activity against pirate stations often involves more than one enforcement action. For example, in the most basic scenario, FCC field agents first visit a pirate station to verify its existence and then mail a warning letter to that address. This would count as two Database entries (one visit, one postal). The FCC seems to exercise enforcement options on a case-by-case basis, meaning the number of enforcement actions conducted per station can vary.
2. Sometimes the full extent of the FCC’s enforcement activity against a station is not known until the FCC itself discloses it. This typically occurs in the issuance of NALs and Forfeiture Notices. When this information is made available the Database is backfilled to account for every enforcement action.
3. None of the summary and “statistical” data should be construed as conclusive in any way. Given the extent of what remains unknown about the stations themselves, and the variable nature of the FCC’s enforcement protocol, this data stands in for information that might be useful in tracking the FCC’s overall sensitivity to pirate activity if the caveats didn’t apply.
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