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ROBIN ABCARIAN

No Warrant? No Cause? No Signs? No Problem?

August 25, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Say what you will, cynics, about the stifling predictability of the Republican National Convention. A political convention--even a pulseless one--can be an affirmation of the democratic process, of what is great about this country.

And yet, I discovered, it can also be a reminder of what is not so laudable, of how easily and casually the rights we take for granted can be trampled in the name of security.

For even as Bob Dole gave his acceptance speech, even as he uttered the words, "I save my respect for the Constitution, not for those who would ignore it, violate it, or replace it with conceptions of their own fancy," government agents not 100 yards away were behaving in a way that would be easy to interpret as illegal.

In their quest to protect San Diego from the ugly events of places like Atlanta and Oklahoma City, federal agents were conducting searches of vehicles parked at the hotel next to the convention center, where many news organizations were based. The agents had almost everything they needed: bomb-sniffing dogs, mirrors, the works. But they didn't have the most important tool of all--a warrant or permission of the people whose cars were being examined.

And because the searches were effectively conducted in secret, one can't help but be reminded of the ugly events of some other places--like Waco and Ruby Ridge--and the deep mistrust of government those names might inspire.

As the Democrats open their convention Monday in Chicago, the "police riots" of 1968 casting a long shadow, Americans might remember this: Civil liberties are frail constructs, as easily vaporized by legal laziness as by marauding cops.

*

Each morning during the GOP convention, I navigated two security checkpoints, pulled to the top of a grand, circular drive at the Marriott Hotel and blithely relinquished my car to a valet.

And every day, unbeknownst to me or, presumably, to anyone else who was abandoning cars to valets for safekeeping, the government searched my car.

As I retrieved my car the first two days, I was dimly aware that a few loose items in the back had been moved. A pin~ata I'd bought for my daughter in Tijuana was in a different place; my old denim jacket in the backseat was not where I had left it. I could have been wrong.

As it turned out, I wasn't. My station wagon has a fold-away, rear-facing seat. On the third day, someone lifted the panel that conceals the seat and forgot to put it down.

"What were you guys doing in my car?" I demanded of a valet.

"Ma'am, it wasn't us," he replied. "It was the Secret Service. They're doing bomb checks on all the cars."

"The Secret Service is going into my car?"

"Yes, ma'am."

By chance the next day, I struck up a conversation outside the Marriott with a pair of Navy bomb experts, who said they'd been enlisted by the Secret Service to search cars. In one case, they said, they found what appeared to be illegal drugs and turned them over to police. Still, they were stunned to learn they'd been conducting searches without consent.

*

After the convention, curious about the process that led to consentless searches, I called the Marriott.

"We generally do not discuss the things we do from a security standpoint," said Bob Garvin, the hotel's assistant director of loss prevention. He suggested I check with the Secret Service.

"You're saying you weren't aware [of the searches] until after the fact?" asked Douglas Carver, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service's San Diego field office. "There should have been a notice. . . . It should have been conspicuously posted.

"Maybe the sign fell off the fence," he suggested. "You should talk to the Marriott."

I decided to check with the ACLU instead.

According to Carol Sobel, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, proper legal notice can be accomplished with something as simple as a sign, such as one finds at airports alerting travelers they could be subject to search beyond a certain point.

"If the Secret Service doesn't think it is such a big deal that the Marriott did not post the sign, then there is something really wrong here," Sobel said. "The government cannot pass the obligation to private parties to inform people of their rights. . . . They are saying, 'Hey, we can do what we want and if the Marriott doesn't post the sign, no problem?' Well, it is a problem because you should not be searched without giving consent. The government itself is at fault."

Capt. Dave Bejarano of the San Diego police confirmed that no such signs were posted at or near the Marriott. Instead, he said, they were posted at a few public venues, mainly at the designated protest site.

The protest site was a relentlessly hot parking lot, surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence, patrolled by cops galore, separated from the convention center by railroad tracks and invisible to delegates.

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