Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jun 2002
Source: Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (FL)
Copyright: 2002 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Seth Hettena,  Associated Press Writer


SAN DIEGO (AP)-- Law enforcement officials fear a federal court ruling 
banning random searches of automobile gas tanks at the Mexican border could 
make it easier to slip drugs, terrorist weapons and illegal immigrants into 
the United States.

The chief federal prosecutor in San Diego is challenging the ruling, issued 
in January by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 2-1 decision, the court said that inspectors at Western border 
crossings must have reasonable suspicion that a motorist is smuggling 
something in his gas tank before they can take the vehicle apart.

The ruling has alarmed the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the 
Customs Service.

"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," U.S. Attorney Patrick O'Toole said in court 

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

Gas-tank smuggling is already the most common form of vehicle smuggling at 
Southern California border crossings.

Illegal immigrants have been known 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 papers. Most are weak, nauseated, dehydrated and 
sometimes unable to stand, Hinckley said.

Since 1997, drugs have been found in 4,600 gas tanks at California border 
crossings, according to the 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.

The appellate court ruling prompted a federal judge in San Diego Monday to 
throw out 81 pounds of marijuana found Feb. 12 in the gas tank of a station 
wagon crossing the border. O'Toole said he is using that case to challenge 
the circuit court's decision.

Scores of vehicles every day are selected for a thorough search at San 
Ysidro, which is the world's busiest border crossing and links San Diego 
and Tijuana, Mexico.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that anyone entering the United States is 
subject to routine, random searches without the need for a warrant. Since 
drugs are so commonly found in gas tanks, border inspectors have considered 
such searches routine.

But the appeals court said that gas-tank searches are too intrusive to be 
considered routine because they require lifting a vehicle and disconnecting 
the tank from the chassis.

The ruling covers border crossings within the court's territory, which 
includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Montana and Washington.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom