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Justices to Inspect Gas Tank Searches

In a California case, the high court will decide whether agents can take apart vehicles to look for drugs. The U.S. calls it a matter of security.

October 15, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, taking up a California border search case, agreed Tuesday to decide whether agents may routinely take apart the gas tanks and fuel lines of vehicles entering the U.S.

Government lawyers say those extraordinary searches are needed to catch drug smugglers and terrorists.

Over the last five years, "gas tank drug seizures have accounted for approximately 25% of all drug seizures" at the ports of entry in Southern California, Jayson Ahern, a customs service manager, told the high court. Gas tanks "continue to be the primary concealment area" for smugglers of drugs, he said.

Inspectors at the border may pull a vehicle aside and disassemble the fuel line and inspect the gas tank. They may do so on a hunch and without a specific reason to believe the vehicle is involved in drug smuggling. If nothing is found, a mechanic reassembles the car or truck, and the motorist is sent on his way.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that these intrusive searches go too far and that they violate the 4th Amendment ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." Besides delaying an innocent person, agents may put the driver in danger if they fail to reassemble the vehicle correctly, said Judge Alex Kozinski.

"Where the search includes the dismantling of a mechanical part in the motor vehicle, the driver has little independent opportunity to allay his fear that the vehicle may leave him stranded on the freeway -- or far worse," he wrote.

The 9th Circuit ruled that border agents could not take apart a vehicle unless they had a "reasonable suspicion" based on specific evidence that a motorist or his vehicle was transporting illegal drugs or other dangerous material.

In his appeal, U.S. Solicitor Gen. Theodore B. Olson said that the ruling was wrong as a matter of law and that it was dangerous to the nation's security. Unlike elsewhere in the country, customs agents have an unusually "broad power to conduct searches at the border," Olson said. In the past, the Supreme Court has said all cars and motorists can be stopped after crossing the border, even though such roadblocks may be illegal elsewhere.

And contrary to Kozinski's ruling, Olson described the disassembling of gas tanks as "quick, safe and nondestructive" and "not outside the routine sorts of inspections that international travelers should anticipate when seeking entry into this country." He also cited the arrest and conviction of would-be terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was seized in 1999 by a U.S. Customs agent after he crossed the Canadian border with explosives hidden in the trunk of his car. As part of the so-called millennium plot, Ressam intended to detonate the devices at Los Angeles International Airport.

If the high court were to put gas tanks off limits to routine searches, terrorists could seek to avoid detection by hiding explosives there, Olson said.

In the case before the court, a Customs inspector found about 81 pounds of marijuana in a Ford Taurus station wagon that was stopped at the Otay Mesa entry point near San Diego. The driver, Manuel Flores-Montano, was indicted on the drug charges, but a federal judge and the 9th Circuit ruled that the evidence had to be suppressed because the search was illegal.

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