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http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-yosemite13dec13,1,3902352.story

December 13, 2004

Breaking Law Is No Walk in Park
Some Yosemite visitors and workers say rangers can be overzealous in
enforcing rules. Officials say their good deeds far exceed any lapses.

By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK  The evening had begun so well. After wine and
dinner at the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel last year, Australian tourists
Margaret and Andre Vischer stepped into the frigid High Sierra night
and into their rental car.

As they drove through the first dark intersection, neither of them
noticed the park ranger's vehicle. Andre, 58, recalled seeing a stop
sign and lightly touching the brakes but not coming to a full stop.

After they were pulled over by the rangers, Vischer said he told them
about the bottle of wine he and his wife had shared during their
four-hour dinner. Both Vischers were given Breathalyzer tests. Andre's
blood alcohol registered .08, the minimum at which a person is
considered legally drunk. Margaret tested at .06.

Andre was frisked, handcuffed, read his rights and taken away by two
rangers. Another ranger drove the couple's rental car while Margaret
remained at the side of the road where a male ranger frisked her,
handcuffed her and took her to Yosemite's small jail to spend the
night. There, she was fingerprinted, photographed, questioned and told
to strip, shower and put on an orange jumpsuit.

When Margaret asked why she was being jailed even though her
blood-alcohol level was under the legal limit and she was not driving,
she said rangers told her they considered her a danger to herself and
others. The next day she was released without being charged.

The couple spent Margaret's 60th birthday a few days later at the
park's federal courthouse, where Andre pleaded guilty to driving under
the influence and paid a $2,500 fine.

"The whole thing was totally intimidating and humiliating and totally
unnecessary," Margaret Vischer said in a recent telephone interview
from the couple's home in Sydney.

Cam Sholly, Yosemite's deputy chief ranger, said the decision to arrest
Margaret Vischer was discretionary. "This was a fine line between
taking someone into custody for their own safety and releasing someone
whose judgment is impaired to a degree that they could be a danger to
themselves," he said.

But Margaret Vischer's story has a familiar ring to other visitors,
employees and defense attorneys with similar accounts of alleged
overzealous policing in a place where people come to relax and expect
to be treated like guests. Most of the people who have questioned the
conduct of park rangers acknowledged doing something out of line.
Nonetheless, they contend that the treatment by park rangers was out of
proportion to the minor infractions they committed and out of place in
a national park.

Beth Shilliday, a 35-year-old assignment editor for KTLA-TV Channel 5
in Los Angeles, said she was treated for a concussion and bruises after
rangers threw her to the ground while arresting her on suspicion of
drunk driving and possession of a small amount of marijuana. Her car
and others were stopped during a search for a missing child in August.

Park officials told The Times, which like KTLA-TV is owned by the
Tribune Co., that Shilliday was intoxicated and uncooperative, and
whatever injuries she suffered she caused herself. Shilliday has
pleaded not guilty and her case is pending in Yosemite's federal court.
Meanwhile, the park has launched an internal investigation into the
rangers' behavior.

Leah Sesto, an 18-year-old clerk in the park in 2000, said she was
dragged out of bed by rangers and arrested on suspicion of being drunk
a few hours after friends had escorted her to her room. "It was the
first time I'd ever had anything to drink," said Sesto, who described
herself as "a goody-goody church kid."

She pleaded guilty to being under the influence of alcohol.

Interviewed at the park, Yosemite Supt. Mike Tollefson vigorously
defended his rangers, saying their daily unheralded efforts to save
lives and keep the park and visitors safe far outstrip occasional
judgment errors.

"I would adamantly disagree that there is a zero tolerance policy in
this park," Tollefson said. "We certainly have problems periodically.
Of the complaints we get, law enforcement is the minority, but we take
those the most seriously."

Despite its bucolic setting amid towering granite walls and waterfalls,
Yosemite National Park is subject to the same social ills that police
contend with elsewhere. In the mid-1980s, a report from the Interior
Department's inspector general found a prostitution ring operating at
the Ahwahnee Hotel and estimated that 85% of the park's commercial
workforce used illegal drugs.

Five years ago, three tourists and a nature guide were slain just
outside the park. In October, a manhunt for another multiple killer led
to a remote section of the park where the suspect started a 2,000-acre
fire before fatally shooting himself.

"If you let your guard down, we might lose a ranger here in Yosemite. I
don't want that to happen," Sholly said.

Today, 50 full-time rangers are responsible for enforcing the law in
the 1,200-square-mile park. They deal with assaults, thefts, arson,
illegal hunting and vandalism. Park officials said there have been more
than 4,600 citations this year and 306 arrests, higher than last year's
tally but well below the record high of 846 arrests in 1992.

Tollefson said he stresses the importance of getting out of patrol cars
and interacting more with visitors. "Our job here is to educate and to
articulate why the park is important," he said.

Yet much of the criticism of law enforcement practices in the park
centers on the way rangers respond to people who question why they're
being stopped.

"One of the things I see as a pattern is people being arrested for
mouthing off to rangers," said Carrie Leonetti, an assistant federal
public defender who represents people arrested in the park. "Time and
time again I have clients tell me that they are arrested for asking
questions such as, 'Am I being detained?' "

John Reynolds, former director of the Park Service's Western region,
which includes Yosemite, said in a recent interview that the park has
long had a reputation for no-nonsense policing.

"Yosemite was upsetting from a number of points of view," said
Reynolds, who resigned in 2000. "There was a fair amount of concern 
unsubstantiated concern  at the regional office level."

Employees of the park's concessionaire say rangers shadow them waiting
for the slightest infraction and talk about "sleeping with one eye
open." Climbers who gather here to scale the park's famous granite
walls joke about "getting tooled in the Valley."

Tollefson acknowledged there have been conflicts with climbers, whom he
said "are at the edge in a variety of ways."

A chat room on a website for park rangers offers a different take on
those relations.

"Search the pack and get the drugs," reads one anonymous entry. "Who
cares if you have consent. No one is going to believe a Deadhead over a
Ranger. Worthless scumbag deserves what he gets."

Drugs and alcohol figure into many arrests in the park, said Sholly,
pointing out that there are as many as 20 establishments in Yosemite
where alcohol is served or sold at various times of year.

He said rangers would be derelict if they were not on the lookout for
drunk drivers, given the park's winding roads, distracting scenery and
wandering wildlife.

Yet critics contend that rangers, at times, can pose the greatest
threat. Don Squires, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, said he
witnessed such an incident in the summer of 2000.

According to Squires and official reports, a group of British soldiers
was drinking beer at a crowded outdoor cafe in Yosemite Valley. The
young men were singing raucously, Squires said, but he and his wife,
who were chaperoning several young children, saw nothing but bonhomie
on a "lovely afternoon."

However, after a patron complained that one of the soldiers "mooned"
someone in the crowd, Squires said rangers quickly intervened, hogtying
and striking one of the soldiers as they dragged him off the deck.

"It was an excessive use of force and an outrageous abuse of
authority," Squires said. "I was stone-cold sober just a few feet away
with an uninterrupted view, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
It was a terrible thing for kids to see."

The soldier pleaded guilty to being under the influence of alcohol,
resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

It's not always visitors who run afoul of Yosemite rangers.

Park workers complain they have been charged with public drunkenness
simply for drinking a beer on the front steps of employee dormitories
or as they walked from their rooms to nearby bathrooms. One young woman
was stopped after leaving a party in July and charged with "internal
possession' of alcohol," a reference to the contents of her stomach.
The charge was dismissed.

Stories like that abound in the valley, said Greg Johnson, vice
president of the local Service Employees International Union, which
represents concessions employees in the park.

Tollefson disagreed. "I don't think we have rangers hiding in the
bushes waiting for concessions employees to do something wrong," the
park superintendent said.

Yet some employees say fear of harassment causes them to live outside
the park, entailing longer commutes and higher rents. "I moved away
from my home of eight years because of it," said Bryan Kay, 33, who
lived and worked in the valley and volunteered on the park's search and
rescue team. "I packed my bags. I said, 'I'm moving to America.' Now I
commute an hour and a half to my job."
 

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Discussion Starter #2
FYI: If you want the scenery of Yosemite, an awesome 4WD trail, and nobody around to harass you, go run the Dusy Ershim trail.

You'll need a well prepared rig and a few days to do it though!

Later,
....Mike
 

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It's unfair to form an opinion based upon the available information.

I can say, however, that law enforcement requires discretion.

I can tell you from personal experience that it is a hard line to walk.

I don't care for or tolerate excessive force. Force should always be appropriate for the situation. If they are being heavy handed then they need to be put in check by their supervisors.
 
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