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Saturday, October 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No ferry car searches, for now

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ferry riders likely will see more troopers and bomb-sniffing dogs at the docks and on the boats, but the Washington State Patrol says it does not expect to search individual cars in order to comply with ramped-up security measures taking effect today.

The controversial searches will remain an "available tool" for the Patrol if it cannot meet the tighter rules — required by the U.S. Coast Guard — by using its available dogs, said State Patrol Capt. Fred Fakkema.

The State Patrol may also have to resort to searching individual cars if the Department of Homeland Security increases the national threat level as the November elections approach, he added.

So far, the Patrol has borrowed enough dogs from other state and federal agencies to be able to screen a higher percentage of cars loading onto the ferries, Fakkema said. This marks the second time the Patrol has had to rely on loaner canines and borrowed manpower in order to meet the regulations of the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, which took effect in July.

Ten days ago, the Governor's Office announced the likelihood that troopers would be asking passengers to open their car trunks or allow officers to look inside their cars. The changes are part of a Coast Guard order last month to all large-capacity ferry systems nationwide.

The nation's largest is Washington State Ferries, which says it carries 11 million vehicles and 26 million people a year — more than Amtrak carries.

"It is our intention to meet the new requirements without having to resort to the searches," Fakkema said. "You can expect the increased security presence at the docks and on the ferries. But it will be the same as we have been doing it, with the dogs."

An official in the governor's Office of Financial Management, however, says the Patrol's resources are "spread very, very thin, without wriggle room."

"If for any reason K-9 teams become disabled, the Patrol may have to resort to searching vehicles," said office spokesman Hal Spencer.

Civil libertarians say random vehicle searches are illegal under the state's constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is asking anyone whose car is searched to report it to the organization using a form on its Web site, said Doug Klunder, head of the ACLU's Privacy Project.

The state Attorney General's Office says the possible searches are justified by the Coast Guard's order as well as by intelligence that terrorists may have been probing the state's ferry system.

When the new federal maritime-security rules took effect in July, the Coast Guard told the state it would be required to search 5 percent of the vehicles going onto the ferries.

In September, however, the Coast Guard increased the level of searches to 15 percent of cars and 25 percent of vans and trucks, according to several federal law-enforcement sources familiar with the matter.

Fakkema said the Patrol has accelerated its training of bomb-sniffing dogs and by Nov. 15 will have enough dogs to screen 15 percent of cars and 25 percent of trucks without opening trunks or searching inside.

These higher screening levels may be permanent, the Coast Guard has said.

Fakkema said the Patrol will rely on "redirecting resources and overtime" to make sure both the ferries and roads are adequately staffed.

Security-related State Patrol overtime costs through Nov. 15 are expected to be about $182,000, Spencer said.

However, if the Department of Homeland Security increases the national threat level from yellow to orange, the new maritime rules would require troopers to screen 25 percent of cars and half of larger vehicles, law-enforcement sources have said.

In that case, troopers may have to search cars, Fakkema said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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