September 10, 2004

Yellowstone marshmallows

As someone with experience in the examination of cruise ship passengers (U.S. Customs Inspector since 1972), I take exception to Ted Frank's characterization (Jun. 22) of the incident in which a woman was taken into custody on the strength of a mistaken warrant arising from a food infraction at Yellowstone Park. Obviously, someone erred in entering this lady's name in any database. However, when it was determined that some sort of warrant existed, the officers at the pier HAD NO CHOICE. They have no discretion to determine if the warrant is important or trivial; that is for others to determine.

No, we are not laying aside our efforts to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Anyone who is found to have any kind of warrant will be taken into custody, and turned over to those who have the capability to determine the proper disposition of the case. Clearly, in this instance, the magistrate made the reasonable decision. That is his job. Finally, you seemed to imply that there was somehow something sinister about the timing -- 6:30 AM. In Seattle, cruise ships arrive at 6 AM. The carrier desires to get the passengers off a quickly as possible to enable them to ready the ship for the next group with, usually, a 5 PM sailing. So, there is nothing unusual about the hour.

And there probably is a good reason for the Yellowstone Park regulation that instigated the whole thing. Unsecured food quickly attracts bears. This lady would have been very unhappy if a bear had invaded her campsite to get her marshmallows. -- Cameron King, Seattle, Wash.

Thanks for writing. However, I must take exception to your exceptions. While perhaps it is the case that the front-line Customs officials had no discretion but to handcuff and shackle a passenger regardless of the seriousness of the warrant, this still means that someone at a higher level has decided that this is a good use of limited Customs resources. (Wouldn't it be better to do a comprehensive (or, at least, a more comprehensive) search for serious warrants than what I understand to be a random search for all warrants?) Even viewing it as a taxpayer, rather than imagining myself in the flip-flops of the jailed vacationer and her nightmare, it seems to be unprofitable to devote so many person-hours to the supposed non-payment of a $50 fine. The prosecutor, who did have discretion once the case was delivered to him, wanted to have still further proceedings on the issue.

I am not proposing that parkgoers should be free to scatter sugary treats willy-nilly; I have no doubt that one should not leave marshmallows unstored in the wilderness and personally do my best to avoid bear-related incidents. But I describe the offense as trivial because the government has decided that it merits no more than a $50 fine. -- Ted Frank

Posted by Walter Olson at September 10, 2004 12:02 AM