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Customs Service curbing its screenings for drug smuggling

Caught in the fierce controversy over "racial profiling," the U.S. Customs Service is imposing new limits on its screening of airline passengers to intercept illicit drug shipments.

Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Wednesday that the agency, which seeks to catch contraband entering the country, will no longer detain airline travelers suspected of smuggling narcotics for more than four hours without specific approval of a federal magistrate.

It also will require customs officers to notify an attorney or friend of the passenger, if asked to do so, when the traveler is detained for more than two hours. In cases where no drugs are found, the agency will help travelers whose trips have been disrupted continue on their way.

The changes come as the Customs Service is facing at least a dozen lawsuits filed by angry passengers, including a class-action suit in Chicago covering 100 black women who alleged they were singled out and searched because of their race and gender.

Customs officials conducted searches of more than 50,000 international travelers, from pat-downs to strip searches, in fiscal 1998, the service said.

Top customs officials are vowing to base such searches on concrete evidence or specific intelligence, rather than picking out people based on race and appearance. Experience shows that certain flights from certain countries carry a higher risk of smugglers, they say.

The new measures mark "a sharp departure from past practice and represent a self-imposed restraint on customs search authority, which federal courts have always liberally upheld," Kelly said.

The Supreme Court has ruled that customs officers at airports and border crossings don't need the probable cause or warrants that police need to conduct searches. Customs agents can perform a strip search based on "reasonable suspicion" that someone might be hiding something illegal, the justices have held.

But Kelly said, "We believe that we can catch drug smugglers without unduly jeopardizing personal dignity and individual rights."

Under the new rule, effective Oct. 1, customs would have to convince a federal magistrate that it had "reasonable suspicion" for keeping a passenger in custody beyond four hours. If the magistrate declined, the passenger would be released.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the move a step in the right direction. But the ACLU said the reasonable-suspicion standard is relatively easy to meet and may not be sufficient to "protect people from abusive or discriminatory searches," said legislative counsel Gregory Nojeim.