Hands off, deckhands! That's the message from a Colchester man who commutes every day by ferry to and from his job in Plattsburgh, New York. Michael Cassidy, a lawyer who works for Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, sued the federal government and ferry company this week in an effort to stop the practice of randomly searching passengers' vehicles and bags before they board the ferries that cross Lake Champlain. The lawsuit is the nation's first legal challenge to a new anti-terrorism law implemented this summer affecting all passenger vessels operating on U.S. waterways.
Cassidy says that his car has been stopped and searched four times since July 1, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security imposed new random security "screenings" on all passenger ferries. Cassidy calls these searches "dubious and ineffectual at best" and claims that they "violate his reasonable expectation of privacy from government intrusion, and constitute an unreasonable and unconstitutional restriction on his right to travel."
Cassidy rides the ferries about four days a week and says he has no choice but to submit to the searches because driving around the lake is too costly and time-consuming. Under the new federal mandate, which is part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, passengers who refuse to consent to the search cannot be allowed to board the ferry until they do so -- and will have their license plate number reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The lawsuit was brought by attorneys working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. It names Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Coast Guard officials who drafted the new security measures and the Lake Champlain Transportation Company (LCT) as co-defendants.
But the folks who run the ferries claim that this lawsuit has caught them between a rock and a hard place, since they're just trying to minimize the impact on passengers' privacy while also complying with federal law. "Whatever the Coast Guard tells us to do, we do it," says Heather Stewart, LCT's operations manager. "We don't go above the law and we don't go below it. That's what it comes down to."
Stewart points out that LCT isn't the only ferry company conducting these new security screenings. She adds that implementing the new policy has been costly to the company and time-consuming for their employees.
Cassidy asserts that the searches do little, if anything, to protect vessels from terrorist attacks, but only "[promote] fear and suspicion in order to justify ever greater erosion of our civil liberties." His complaint notes that the screenings consist of a cursory visual glance inside a vehicle's trunk and passenger compartment, purportedly to detect bombs or explosives. However, the complaint points out that the security plan doesn't mandate the search of commercial vehicles such as tractor-trailer trucks, nor does it prohibit other potentially dangerous items such as knives and firearms.
"People wonder how these searches are thwarting terrorist attacks," says Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, in an October 4 written statement. "As an anti-terrorism measure, they're simply ineffective. This isn't the best way to spend limited funds and resources."