Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jun 2002
Source: Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
Copyright: 2002, Denver Publishing Co.
Author: Seth Hettena, Associated Press


SAN DIEGO- Officials at U.S. border crossings in the West fear a federal 
court ruling could punch a hole in the security net designed to keep drugs 
and terror weapons from entering the United States.

The acting U.S. attorney in San Diego is challenging a ruling by the 9th 
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that bans random searches of gas tanks of 
vehicles crossing the U.S. border.

The ruling requires inspectors at Western border crossings to have reason 
to suspect someone of gas-tank smuggling before pulling a vehicle apart.

Authorities fear the decision by a three-judge panel in San Francisco could 
make it easier for smugglers to slip drugs, illegal immigrants or terror 
weapons into the United States.

"Terrorists could employ a gas tank to smuggle biological weapons or 
explosives across the border, secure in the knowledge that Customs would 
not be able to inspect that area of their car unless inspectors could 
develop reasonable suspicion," Patrick O'Toole, the acting U.S. attorney in 
San Diego, said this month in court papers.

Concerns about border security were heightened by the announcement last 
week of the arrest of an American suspected of plotting to explode a 
radiological device in the United States.

The circuit court's January decision covers border crossings within the 
court's territory, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Montana, and 

Officials with both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the 
Customs Service say the ruling will almost certainly lead to an increase in 
gas-tank smuggling, already the most common form of vehicle smuggling at 
Southern California border crossings.

Since 1997, drugs have been found in 4,600 gas tanks at California border 
crossings, accounting for one out of every four vehicles caught smuggling 
narcotics, according to the U.S. Customs Service. The latest figures from 
October to March show that when drugs were found in a vehicle, 30 percent 
of the time they were in the tank.

"If this is the case now, one can only imagine how much more gas tank 
smuggling will take place if 'reasonable suspicion' is required to search 
gas tanks at the border," O'Toole wrote in a court filing.

The filing comes in connection with a U.S. District Court case in San Diego 
involving a California man caught on Feb. 12 with 81 pounds of marijuana in 
the gas tank of his station wagon.

On Monday, a federal judge tossed out what was found in the search, citing 
the circuit court's ruling. O'Toole said he intends to use the case to 
challenge the circuit court's decision.

The INS fears the circuit court decision will spur more illegal immigrants 
to cram themselves into hollowed-out gas tanks to sneak across the border. 
Inspectors find someone in a gas tank once every 10 days at San Diego's two 
border crossings, Diane Hinckley of the INS said in court documents. Most 
are weak, nauseated, dehydrated and sometimes unable to stand, Hinckley said.

Random searches are a crucial part of security measures at the San Ysidro 
Port of Entry, the world's busiest border crossing, which links San Diego 
and Tijuana, Mexico. Several times a day, between 20 and 30 vehicles at San 
Ysidro are randomly selected for a thorough search by inspectors and dogs 
trained to detect people and drugs.

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that anyone entering the United States is 
subject to routine searches without suspicion under a long-held exemption 
to the Constitutional prohibition on warantless searches.

Since drugs are so commonly found in gas tanks, border inspectors have 
considered such searches routine. But the circuit court found that gas-tank 
searches are too intrusive to be considered routine because they require 
lifting a vehicle and disconnecting the tank from the chassis.

Such a search posed a danger to the occupants, should the gas tank be 
reassembled incorrectly and would make a reasonable driver think twice 
before getting behind the wheel again, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the 2-1 

Kozinski wrote on an appeal by Jose Molina Tarazon, who was caught in 1999 
at the Calexico border crossing with 31 packages of marijuana in the gas 
tank of his pickup truck.
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