Few complaints over random car searches

While civil libertarians may question their legality, random searches of vehicles at the Winslow ferry terminal Friday morning didn’t appear to disturb those on the receiving end.

“Glad you’re doing this,” a Port Townsend motorist said to the two Washington State Patrol troopers, as they searched his Volkswagen bug while he waited for the 11:10 sailing.

“I ride this ferry quite a bit, and I’m glad these folks are here making it safe,” he said.

A woman hailing from Bremerton said, “I don’t know if I think it’s a good idea, but I have no problem with it.”

A Kingston man didn’t give the search a second thought.

“I don’t have any problem with this,” he said. “I work an a Navy base, so my car is searched all the time. They’re just doing it for safety.”

The WSP search efforts, to beef up anti-terrorist security, came to the island as part of a pre-set but unannounced schedule that includes all ferry terminals.

It was the second time in a week that troopers have conducted searches at the Winslow terminal.

The troopers conducting searches select an interval number, such as 15, then approach each 15th vehicle, said WSP spokesman Glen Tyrrell.

Troopers explain the purpose of the searches, advise the motorist that their vehicle has been selected randomly, and give the motorist a consent form. The form says that the search is voluntary, may be declined or stopped at any time, but acknowledges that anything found could be used as evidence in legal proceedings.

If the motorist consents – and everyone did Friday morning – the troopers look inside the trunk and under the hood, then open the doors and look inside. The search takes less than a minute.

“It’s not invasive. It’s a cursory check,” said Tyrrell.

If the driver declines the search, the ferry captain is notified, and the captain decides whether to allow the vehicle on board. One motorist who refused to consent earlier this week was denied boarding, Tyrrell said.

The fact that there may be consequences for refusing consent concerns the American Civil Liberties Union, which questions whether consent under those

circumstances is really voluntary.

One Bainbridge Island woman who agreed to the search wasn’t completely sure herself of how voluntary her consent was.

“It’s kind of unnerving,” she said. “It happens so quickly it’s hard for you to think about not doing it.”

She questioned how effective the cursory search would be in preventing someone bent on doing harm.

“They didn’t look in the glove box or under the seat,” she said. “If you really wanted to do something, this wouldn’t stop you.”

Tyrrell concedes the point to an extent, but says the presence of the troopers is itself important.

“I’m confident that what we’re doing is pro-active, and that our presence would deter anyone with harm in mind,” he said.

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