Is fare enforcement unconstitutional? San Francisco Muni minders take notice

The presence of Muni minders on San Francisco public transit could be in for legal scrutiny if a case before the State of Washington Supreme Court rules in favor of a transit rider.

The Justices is the northwestern State are considering whether the transit minders are engaging in an unreasonable search and seizsure when they shakedown passengers and ask for proof of payment. The Maryland Supreme Court in a similiar case sided with the transit passenger.

Oral arguments are being held on February 17.

Excerpted from Seattles Times 1.26.2022

On March 18, 2018, three Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies boarded a bus in Everett and asked Zachery Meredith to prove he’d paid for his ride. That act of fare enforcement violated his civil rights under the state constitution, Meredith’s lawyer argues.

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Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cops in action

The argument is similar to one made in Maryland last year. The state’s highest court there sided with the train passenger, concluding his Fourth Amendment right against a suspicionless search and seizure had been violated when the agency conducted a “fare sweep.”

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New York City Transit Authority (MTA) cops on the lookout

After being rejected by lower courts, the argument has now found its way to the Washington state Supreme Court, where the justices will weigh whether fare enforcement represents an unconstitutional incursion into passengers’ right to privacy.

If Meredith’s case is successful, transit agencies could be stripped of the authority, granted by the state, to pace the aisles of trains and buses, querying riders for evidence they’d tapped their ORCA cards or bought a ticket.

The implications for Sound Transit, King County Metro’s RapidRide routes, Snohomish County’s Community Transit and other agencies that employ fare enforcement officers are significant.

“There are statewide ramifications for transit in Washington state that will flow from this case,” said Nathan Sugg, a deputy prosecuting attorney with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office who’s representing the state in the case.

But for Tobin Klusty, attorney for Meredith, a rejection of the case — which is being supported by the ACLU of Washington, King County Department of Public Defense and the Washington Defender Association — would signal an endorsement of unlawful search and seizures by law enforcement officers. The government “could conduct investigations without any reasonable suspicion or any suspicion of unlawful activities simply because they want to make sure the law’s being enforced,” he said.


Proof of payment

The question at the center of the case is not whether it’s legal to charge for public transit but whether it’s legal to ask for proof of payment.

In district court in Everett, Meredith’s lawyer sought to have the statement to officers and the evidence collected from the fingerprint device suppressed, arguing that the act of officers asking for proof of payment constituted an unlawful seizure. The court denied the motion and a jury sided against Meredith. The conviction was upheld in Superior Court.

Meredith then brought his case to the Division I Court of Appeals. The court also rejected the argument, saying that, by choosing to board the bus, Meredith had consented to the seizure.

Klusty then petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 17.

Legal arguments

Meredith’s case relies on whether fare enforcement officers asking for proof of payment constitutes a warrantless seizure or restraint. Klusty argues yes because, in that moment, Meredith had no choice but to engage with the officers.

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Scene from film Fruitvale Station (2013) – Story of Oscar Grant’s murder by BART cop Johannes Mehsele January 1, 2009