Car search at ferries worries Whidbeyites

Planning on taking a ferry? Then there's a chance you won't be let on board unless you submit to having your vehicle searched by the Washington State Patrol.

Searches of vehicles waiting in line to board the ferries resumed last week due to additional funding provided by the Washington State Legislature. Searches originally started after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but ended temporarily in December when money ran out. The 2002 Legislature provided an additional $1.8 million which became available last week.

Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Heuther said Monday that since the searches began, the public has generally been supportive. But not everyone, particularly on Whidbey Island.

"Whidbey Island people are very concerned about their civil liberties," Harris-Heuther said.

She said she had received a half-dozen critical e-mails from Whidbey residents, and only a scattering from the other areas served by the ferries.

Harris-Heuther said the American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed concern about the searches.

Car searches are not mandatory, according to State Trooper Lance Ramsay, who was at District 7 headquarters in Marysville Tuesday.

"It's a request," he said. "We're not trying to dig through your personal life. We're trying to eliminate any aspects of terrorism."

Searches are conducted "randomly through a set number," Ramsay said. On Tuesday, troopers were in Mukilteo checking traffic headed to Clinton.

"We're doing all the ferry docks," Ramsay said.

While not mandatory, declining a search will probably end one's plans for a ferry trip that day. Ramsay said the ferry captain is told which vehicle owners have declined a search, and it's up to the captain whether to allow them on board.

But, according to Harris-Heuther, the answer will be no. She said someone who refuses a search will not be allowed on the ferry.

Ramsay said troopers he has talked to encountered few problems when asking to search vehicles.

"In general the public is saying, 'Thank you, we really appreciate what you're doing,' " he said.

The troopers are looking for weapons, explosives and other "things that could harm individuals on the ferry," Ramsay said.

However, the troopers won't look away from other violations of the law, such as seatbelts that are unbuckled or illegal drugs. If any of those are detected, troopers will take what Ramsay called "appropriate action."

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