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Scripps Ship Could Be Freed by Weekend; Liability Not an Issue

Times Staff Writer

A Scripps Institution of Oceanography research ship, seized this week by the U. S. Customs Service in Honolulu after 4.5 grams of marijuana was allegedly found on board, may be on its way by Saturday, authorities said.

Customs authorities and Scripps administrators continued discussions over the release of the ship, which is owned by the Navy but operated by Scripps, including an initial demand by Customs that the research institution admit “full guilt in this matter,” according to Tom Collins, associate director for administration at Scripps.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Collins said it appeared that the boat would be released in time for a scheduled research trip.

Never a Question of Guilt

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Customs officials said there was never a question of guilt on Scripps’ part and the institution will not be held liable.

Asked whether the ship would be released by Saturday, Customs spokesman Art Morgan said: “I can’t speculate on that. . . . The U.S. Customs Service is doing whatever it can to expedite the process.”

The research vessel Thomas Washington was seized in Honolulu on Monday after federal agents using drug-sniffing dogs said they found a small amount of marijuana hidden in the berth of Kenneth G. Racca Jr., 28, of San Diego, who works as a wiper on the ship. The seizure was conducted under the government’s controversial “zero tolerance” anti-drug campaign.

Collins said the ship was in “constructive seizure,” a process in which the Customs Service allows the seized property to remain in use and in the custody of the owner or operator.

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“They have softened their position somewhat,” Collins said. “The status is now that they’re talking about this constructive-seizure arrangement, which really means we’ll be able to take our ship and do our cruise. We have been assured that we are not admitting guilt to anything.”

But Morgan, who is assistant district director for the Customs Service in Honolulu, would not confirm that the ship was in the constructive-seizure process.

Study of Greenhouse Effect

The boat is scheduled to leave Honolulu on Saturday with a team of scientists for a 30-day trip to study carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect in the mid-Pacific.

Collins said that so far, the delay has cost Scripps, which is part of UC San Diego, about $20,000 in legal counsel expenses and staff overtime. If the ship is delayed beyond Saturday, costs of keeping the crew and the scientific team waiting could increase to $15,000 a day, he said.

Meanwhile, the boat is in an “administrative petition process” that will give the ship’s crew an opportunity to tell their side of the story in writing, without having to go through court proceedings, Morgan said.

Racca is scheduled to be arraigned today in connection with one charge each of importation and possession of a controlled substance. A court spokeswoman has told the Associated Press that Racca will probably be fined and released.

Collins would not discuss whether Scripps would take any action against Racca.

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“He will be dealt with fairly within university policy,” he said.

Separate Processes

Morgan said the seizure of the ship and the charges facing Racca were two separate processes.

“Mr. Racca is involved in a court case, and a ship’s seizure is in an administrative process. One does not necessarily hold up the other. They’re independent of each other.”

Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) said he was disappointed in the action taken by Customs and criticized the zero-tolerance policy as cosmetic.

“It’s image over substance. . . . It doesn’t work,” he said.

A spokesman for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said that, though the search was necessary, “There needs to be some flexibility on what punishment should be inflicted on the boat owner when he’s done everything possible” to ensure that there are no drugs on board.

“By law, the (Customs Service) has to at least react,” said Wilson aide Bill Livingstone. “Our concern is that the procedure ought to be reasonable. . . . Is a fine even necessary at this point? The skipper appears to be trying to comply with the law.”

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Collins said Scripps paid a company that used dogs to check the ship for drugs when it was in San Francisco last June. In addition, all crew members signed a statement acknowledging the institution’s anti-drug policy and promising to abide by it.

‘We Were Shocked’

“We feel we’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen,” Collins said. “When we found out, we were shocked.”

The Thomas Washington, Collins said, had just returned from Pago Pago in American Samoa.

The government last year relaxed its zero-tolerance policy for commercial fishing vessels so as not to place “undue hardship” on innocent owners who might be unaware of the actions of their crew.


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