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Tuesday, June 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ferries to allow vehicle searches

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Washington State Ferries' new, federally mandated security plan allows random vehicle searches under some circumstances, ferry and law-enforcement officials said yesterday.

But, unless the official threat level rises, state troopers won't be combing through car interiors or trunks when the plan takes effect July 1, State Patrol Chief Lowell Porter said.

The current threat level is the lowest of three established by the Coast Guard, Porter said. Physical searches of passengers' vehicles are permitted under the security plan only when the second level is reached, he added — and even then it's not a sure thing.

While Coast Guard, State Patrol and ferry officials discussed the new plan yesterday, they would not release it, citing national-security concerns.

But Ferries CEO Mike Thorne said passengers shouldn't notice any big changes July 1.

The ferry system has been phasing in most elements of the plan — including use of bomb-sniffing dogs — since April, he said, and ferry boarding shouldn't be slowed.

"We're not aware of anything that would lead to a dramatic change," Thorne said.

Washington State Ferries carry 26 million passengers and 11 million vehicles a year.

The State Patrol, which provides security for state ferries, conducted random vehicle searches on and off after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the system abandoned those two years ago, citing the cost and a low security threat.

The searches drew fire from civil libertarians, as well as some legislators and commuters.

The new plan was written to comply with the federal Maritime Security Act of 2002. The plan originally contained no provision for random searches; the state attorney general's office said searches without probable cause would violate the state constitution.

But Steve Reinmuth, senior deputy attorney general, said that constitutional prohibition was pre-empted by an order the Coast Guard issued yesterday.

Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett, commander of the Coast Guard's 13th District, said the order requires Washington State Ferries to comply with all federal maritime-security requirements effective July 1 — including physical inspections, if necessary.

He would not provide a copy of the order, again citing security concerns.

Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union's Seattle office said the ACLU will look into the security plan. "The ACLU always has concerns when the government conducts random searches of someone without a reason to think they've done anything wrong," he said.

While State Patrol canine units have been sniffing for explosives in some car holding lanes since April, patrol spokesman Fred Fakkema said their number will increase July 1.

Since the dogs can detect explosives even in small amounts, Porter advised passengers not to bring fireworks on board.

Thorne said that as part of the plan, State Ferries began security announcements, security sweeps and passenger-cabin patrols on vessels in April.

New signs indicating access restrictions will be installed, Thorne said. And passengers won't be allowed to leave the ferry once they have boarded.

Security cameras will be installed on boats and at terminals in six to 12 months.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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