Vermont ACLU sues over random searches on ferryboats

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(Host) The Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the federal government to stop random searches of passengers on Lake Champlain ferryboats. The lawsuit alleges that the periodic searches violate the rights of individuals.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Under the National Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, the owner of the ferries, the Lake Champlain Transportation Company, is required to conduct random screenings of individuals and cars crossing the lake. Heather Stewart is the operations manager for the company. She says signs are posted warning passengers that random searches are being conducted; anyone who objects to the policy is denied access to the boat.

While border patrol agents conduct searches along Interstate 91, in this case, Stewart says the law mandates that employees of ferry boat companies do the searches.

(Stewart) “The thought was to keep it in-house. Certainly with much added cost you could hire someone to do it. It’s part of an awareness campaign that we’re doing, it’s more contact with the customer: ‘Hi, how’s it going today?’ A quick look, nothing invasive. And once again we’re just trying to follow the federal law that was given to us and that’s the bottom line.”

(Kinzel) Middlebury attorney Bill Nelson is assisting the ACLU with this lawsuit. Nelson says the random searches have no security value, are a waste of valuable resources, and are part of an effort by the federal government to restrict the privacy rights of individuals.

(Nelson) “We’re not saying that there’s no chance that Osama Bin Laden might want to blow up the Grand Isle ferry. We just think that there’s no more chance he wants to do that than he wants to blow up anything else. I mean, terror is a scary word and we’re told that terrorism can strike anywhere, at any time. But if we take from that the lesson that the government can therefore search anywhere at any time, we’re on the way to becoming a police state.”

(Kinzel) Nelson says the lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Burlington, is the first legal challenge to the Maritime Transportation Security Act.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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