EDITORIAL: Rein in the 'voluntary' searches

We might as well wrap the U.S. Constitution in the flag and burn the whole package if we sit still for random police searches in any but the most dire of circumstances.

Any time such searches are implemented an alarm should sound in the mind of every American — not just those who belong to the American Civil Liberties Union. We should be asking ourselves, “Doesn’t this violate the 4th Amendment, one of the cornerstones of our free society?” If you know your Washington State Constitution, then you know that the right to personal privacy is spelled out even more clearly within the borders of the Evergreen State.

Thus it is with great concern that we view the initiation last week of random searches by the Washington State Patrol of cars parked at the ferry docks. Without any suspicion or grounds for a warrant, people are being asked to show police their personal belongings. The authorities know they couldn’t get away with making this a requirement, so it’s “voluntary.” However, those who refuse to “volunteer” to be searched won’t be allowed to board the ferry. When there’s a punishment for not complying, how can any request be voluntary?

State Patrol searches began immediately after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11. Circumstances then were indeed dire. We didn’t know how many terrorists there were or if they would strike again. But the new series of searches started in June, in the midst of no clear and present terrorist threat. Besides, the searches as conducted won’t stop terrorism. They’ll simply force it someplace else.

Citizens are being randomly “asked” to reveal their private belongings to the police. They’re looking for bombs, guns and other immediate dangers to the ferries, but anything is fair game. Unbuckled seatbelt? You’re busted. A marijuana joint in your ashtray? You’re busted. Undocumented alien? You’re busted. Pretty easy pickins’ for the police, who don’t have to do any investigate work or even get a warrant. Meanwhile, any real terrorists would be free to turn around and pick another target — perhaps a nearby school would do.

We should not allow a general concern about terrorism to erode our individual liberties. Vigilance by the pubic, police and ferry employees is always called for, but If “voluntary” searches are allowed today, they will likely become mandatory tomorrow.

This is a serious situation, so serious that the Washington State Legislature should make it a priority to rein in the state police.

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