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Tuesday, December 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No random searches in ferry-security plan

Seattle Times staff reporter

The state ferry system will not reintroduce random vehicle searches under a new ferry-security plan expected to be submitted for federal approval as early as today, according to state ferry and law-enforcement officials.

The 80-page plan was required as part of the 2002 Maritime Security Act intended to protect the nation's ports and shipping lanes from terrorist attack. Provisions in that act tentatively called for a percentage of vehicles boarding commuter ferries to be searched. The percentage would go up as the nation's security-threat level increased.

But citing search-and-seizure protections in the Washington State Constitution, ferry-security planners left out random-search provisions. Instead, the ferries will conduct random screening, a less-intrusive alternative that won't require searching of vehicles' interiors or trunks.

"The screening that will be in place as far as vehicles are concerned are those kinds of measures that would be compatible under Washington's constitutional requirements regarding search and seizure," said Gary Baldwin, director of organizational strategy and human resources for Washington State Ferries.

Whether the plan passes federal muster remains to be seen.

"We have been working very closely with them, but what they end up submitting, we haven't seen yet," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet. "We'll have to look at the security plan and see if it meets the kind of security we're looking for."

The Washington State Patrol, which provides security for state ferries, conducted random searches on and off after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Citing costs and a low security threat, the searches were abandoned last year but not before raising the hackles of civil libertarians, lawmakers and commuters. Even the state Attorney General's Office chimed in, warning that the searches could violate the constitution.

The new plan would call for screening measures such as external inspections and the use of bomb-sniffing dogs. Chief Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Mix called the new measures "perfectly legitimate" under the constitution.

"They stop short of asking a driver to step out of their vehicle and open their trunk," Mix said. "Essentially, it's the degree of intrusion."

The ferries, which carry 26 million passengers a year, are considered an extension of the state's highways. And, as on highways, officers can conduct more-intrusive searches with probable cause, Baldwin said.

Though ferry officials agreed to discuss the search measures, the rest of the plan is closely guarded for national-security reasons.

Under the Maritime Security Act, an estimated 15,000 port facilities and large passenger and cargo vessels across the country are required to submit security plans by year's end.

As of last week, the Coast Guard had received fewer than 1,700. The majority are expected to come flooding in today and tomorrow, Shifflet said.

That means it could take weeks or even months before ferry officials know whether their plan meets Coast Guard approval.

The deadline for implementing the plan is July 1.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will be watching closely to see how the ferry-system plan is put into practice. They admit that will be difficult because the plan is not open to public purview.

"The question we can't answer is what exactly is meant by screening," said Doug Klunder, Privacy Project director for the ACLU of Washington. "Without knowing that in more detail, it's hard to say whether we agree with the AG that it doesn't run afoul of the constitution. We're worried that 'screen' might just be a euphemism for 'search.' "

The ACLU also is concerned about what will constitute probable cause before a screening turns into a search, and whether ferry riders will know what possessions to leave behind before boarding.

The last point is particularly sticky because for many who live on islands, the ferries are a necessary mode of travel.

Baldwin said that ferry riders will be informed well before the plan is implemented what items to leave behind, but that basically anything you could legally transport on the highway could also be taken onto the ferries, including firearms that are in a commuter's legal possession.

"The whole idea behind our plan was to try to address legitimate risk and at the same time try not to intrude unnecessarily on our passengers or our operational schedules," Baldwin said.

A final concern for the cash-strapped ferry system will be paying for the plan. Initial cost estimates ranged between $11 million and $20 million. Those figures are no longer valid, Baldwin said. He declined to say what the new costs will be until the final Coast Guard review, except to say that it will be more than the ferry system has available.

"Additional funding will be needed, whether it's from state or federal sources."

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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