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Ferry Search Suit Sinks

Local Matters


Published March 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Pop your trunks and open your bags for inspection. A federal judge in Vermont has given the green light to continued random "screenings" of vehicles and passengers on Lake Champlain ferries. Federal District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha dismissed a lawsuit challenging the searches as unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs in the case, Michael Cassidy and Robert Cabin, are Colchester residents who regularly commute between Vermont and Plattsburgh, N.Y., aboard the ferries operated by the Lake Champlain Transportation Company. Last July, LCT had to implement a Coast Guard-approved security plan that includes random searches of passengers, vehicles and cargo for explosives and other weapons. That mandate, which applies to all commercial vessels operating on Lake Champlain, was part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. Passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it aims to safeguard the nation's ports, harbors and waterways.

Cassidy and Cabin filed suit last September with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. Their complaint, the nation's first legal challenge to the 2002 Homeland Security law, alleged that random, suspicionless searches of vehicles and passengers violate their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

But Murtha disagreed. In an eight-page ruling on February 16, the judge wrote that such searches "advance a 'special governmental need' to promote domestic security" and are not prohibited under the Fourth Amendment. Federal courts had previously ruled that similar "special needs" searches without a warrant -- such as drug testing applicants for highly sensitive government jobs, and screening visitors to schools and government agencies -- are constitutional when the goal is to protect public health and safety.

"Absent evidence of abusive practices," Judge Murtha wrote, "the measures implemented...are akin to the type of security measures which are employed in the air travel industry and pass constitutional muster."

Cassidy, who works as the managing attorney for Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, says he was disappointed by the ruling, but not surprised. In particular, he is disturbed by the court's willingness to defer judgment on these searches' validity and their effects on personal liberties to Congress and the Department of Homeland Security.

"These are difficult times that we're in and it takes a little backbone to stand up to this kind of thing," Cassidy says. "That's their job, to review what's been done [by the government], not bow to the throne."

Cassidy says he intends to appeal the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.