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Saturday, June 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Searches at ferries trouble ACLU

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is calling for the State Patrol to stop randomly searching vehicles that board state ferries.

"We have a strong belief there is a deep problem in terms of legality," Jerry Sheehan, the ACLU's legislative director, said yesterday.

"They are doing searches of would-be ferry passenger vehicles, without believing that any particular individual may be up to wrongdoing. That's a very big problem under the state constitution."

The State Patrol started random searches after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but stopped at the end of December because it didn't have enough money to continue. The searches resumed Monday with $1.8 million appropriated by the state Legislature. Officials would not release information on how often the searches are done.

In addition to the random searches, the State Patrol has placed more uniformed officers on ferries and in terminals.

The agency, which consulted the state Attorney General's Office, contends the random searches are legal and voluntary.

"They sign a consent-to-search form," said Capt. Kim Zangar, a State Patrol spokeswoman. "It (the search) is just minutes, and it's done while they are in line. They can leave if they want. There's a sign at the tollbooth that vehicles are subject to search."

Gary Larson, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said the office did provide legal advice to the State Patrol regarding the searches. But he would not discuss details, saying it would violate attorney-client privilege.

If passengers refuse to have their cars searched and still want to ride the ferry, the State Patrol informs the ferry captain.

"If someone refuses a search, (the captain) will refuse them to board, period," said Susan Harris-Huether, a spokeswoman for Washington State Ferries.

Sheehan said the random searches can't be considered voluntary if refusing to be searched means someone can't get on a ferry.

Harris-Huether said she was aware of only two cases since Sept. 11 in which passengers have protested being searched. One case happened Thursday; that person ended up agreeing to a search and boarded a ferry, she said.

In general, the random searches have support among passengers, Harris-Huether said. "Most people like having the State Patrol around. They feel safer," she said. "For the most part, people don't see it as an issue of civil liberties; they see it as an issue of safety."

People waiting in line for the Bainbridge Island ferry yesterday afternoon generally accepted the idea of searches, but they had some reservations.

"It would be OK since 9/11, but I have concerns about our civil liberties and profiling," said Dean Altaras of Mercer Island.

Jodi Norberg said she would allow a search but cautioned that authorities should be careful of profiling. "It's sad. It's another time," she said.

Doug Honig, an ACLU spokesman, said his organization wasn't opposed to police searching a vehicle, if officials have good reason to believe someone poses a threat.

It's the random searches the ACLU opposes, he said.

"It's not the American way to have police search people when there is no reason to believe they did anything wrong," Honig said. "The issue is how to balance freedom and safety. The ACLU believes we can be both safe and free."

Andrew Garber can be reached at 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter Dave Birkland contributed to this report.

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