Vehicle searches balance security needs, civil rights

This year’s Fourth of July takes on a special meaning as the first Independence Day Celebration since the Sept. 11 terrorist shook the nation, spurring heightened security measures and fierce patriotism countrywide and locally.

“Relative to Sept. 11, we are now walking a fine line between safe and secure communities and our personal freedoms,” said Rep. Brock Jackley, a Democrat from Manchester. “When we come up to the Fourth of July and celebrate our independence, we need to recognize at this point in our history that we need to retain those civil liberties we fought so hard for, and not trample on them in the name of security.”

Jackley, a member of the Committee on State Security, said he was uncomfortable with the Washington State Patrol program of randomly searching vehicles at state ferry terminals.

Since June 21, the controversial effort has been halted, but questions remain among public officials about its recent use this Fourth of July season.

“The random searches were intended to provide a deterrent for possible terrorist problems, and I can understand (that),” Jackley said. “But we need to rethink what we’re doing so that we don’t sacrifice civil liberties.”

The state patrol began searching vehicles just shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and continued for months, but tapered off for lack of funds. The searches were re-launched earlier in June as an overall push for heightened security and after the Legislature also set aside and additional $1.8 million for enhanced security.

While the random searches sparked controversy in many circles, supporters still surface to this day.

“The world has changed,” said Republican Sen. Bob Oke of Port Orchard. “I am not fearful of a bad precedent being set. We live in this great country with freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. The people perpetrating these acts have no value for life. The ferries could be a target.”

Oke, who chairs the Organized Crime Advisory Board for the state of Washington, of which the State Patrol is a presence, said he would let an officer pop open his trunk and take a look for security reasons.

According to the agency, WSF is the largest ferry system in the U.S., with 10 routes, 20 terminals and 29 vessels. In one year, the ferries carried 11 million vehicles and 26 million passengers.

Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, agreed security is a high priority but so, too, are constitutional rights and privacy.

“We need to be concerned about (our) rights especially during fearful times,” Sheldon said. “They need to make sure that if they are going to curb our rights, there has to be a darned good reason, and hopefully the proper legal steps would be taken.”

Kitsap Human Rights Network president Jerry Hebert agrees.

“We normally don’t take public positions too often, but we are weighing in on this issue,” Hebert said. “We agree with the need for security, but not at the cost of human and civil rights.”

Hebert said in this case the argument has deteriorated into an “either/or” approach.

“Either we have it (the searches) or nothing,” Hebert said. “But that’s not true.”

Put another way, if probable cause exists, then searches can be conducted under the laws of the land.

“You don’t just preemptively say you are going to search our vehicles,” said Sheldon. “I don’t have anything to hide in my vehicle, but that’s not the point. It violates my rights.”

Washington State Patrol Capt. Kim Zangar said the patrol has been receptive to citizen discussion, although the recent controversy had nothing to do with the state patrol’s decision to end the random searches.

“When people have concerns, we listen to them,” Zangar said. “But we have to make the best decision for the safety of the people.”

Reaction to the vehicle-search program has not been all bad, either, Zangar said.

“There have been 748 searches of vehicles since Sept. 11 and, of those, four people refused the search,” she said.

According to a prepared statement, the state patrol has been conducting random vehicle searches at state ferry landings at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard.

But based on recent Coast Guard review of the “possibility of terrorist threats,” the random searches will be discontinued.”

And, if the state is prepared to resume searches “in a way that falls within protections of the state constitution,” according to the statement if mandated by national security policy or requested by the Coast Guard.

In the meantime, the State Patrol will continue to provide an enhanced presence at all the state ferry landings and aboard the ferries.

Earlier in June, a state Attorney General’s Office memo warned that the State Patrol and Washington State Ferries could be susceptible to damages if sued over random searches.

The State Patrol maintained that the searches are voluntary.

Even so, the ferry system gave ferry captains the authority to deny passage to any driver who refused to comply with a random search. The ferry system, meanwhile, said the agency is following the lead of the Coast Guard and the State Patrol.

“They weren’t voluntary,” Sheldon said. “When a captain can deny access…if I don’t let them search, I will miss the ferry and miss an appointment, for example. It’s the principle.”

Zangar said the State Patrol was actually continuing its practices following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Officers searched vehicles waiting for ferries for nearly four months after the attacks, she said.

“Searches after Sept. 11 were conducted the same way,” Zangar said. “It wasn’t anything new.”

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