Under pressure from civil libertarians, the Washington State Patrol has suspended searching randomly selected cars of people seeking to board state ferries. While the state patrol had claimed the searches were voluntary, motorists who did not consent to the arbitrary searches were prevented from boarding the boat.
The American Civil Liberties Union strongly objected to these suspicionless searches. We stated that the government should not search people or their possessions without reason to suspect that they are breaking the law or otherwise pose a threat. Suspicionless searches diminish our freedom, violate our privacy, and are not an effective way to protect our security. We posted a complaint form on our Web site, leafleted motorists at ferry docks, and spoke out in the media. Many people contacted the ACLU to express their objections to the searches.
America must strive to be both safe and free. We should not undermine our basic values in the name of security. The logic of random searches at ferries could equally be applied to many public places, including bridges, tunnels, freeways, and shopping malls. Are we willing to be searched by government agents at any place without suspicion?
Through a public disclosure law request, the ACLU obtained an advisory opinion by the Washington Attorney General's office that questioned the legality of the ferry dock searches. It stated that, "Random searches of vehicles in this manner with no individualized suspicion and conducted to prevent possible terrorist activity are unprecedented in Washington state, therefore there is no clear authority authorizing the practice." The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that random roadblocks on our state's roads are unlawful.
Instead of suspicionless searches, the state patrol announced that it is pursuing other measures to enhance ferry security, such as an increased presence of law enforcement officers. These are lawful measures that the ACLU has recommended to address security concerns.