Friday, 25 June 2004

National Lawyers Guild advises MBTA passengers on right not to consent to search

As a member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a Masschusetts native, a regular rider of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority on my visits back East, and an advocate for travellers, I was greatly pleased by today’s announcement by the Massachusetts Chapter of the NLG of a public awareness campaign next week targeting the proposed MBTA policy of “random” searches of T passengers.

To focus public attention on the proposed MBTA search policy (MBTA Press Release, 6/8/04 ), the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is conducting a week-long public awareness campaign to be held June 28 through July 2, with a kick-off press conference on Monday, June 28, 2004, 7:00am, at Downtown Crossing T Station. Michael Avery (National Lawyers Guild), Gabriel Camacho (American Friends Service Committee), and Sadaf Kazmi (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) will be speaking.

The MBTA has announced that it is formulating a new search policy that would allow police officers to randomly search T riders’ bags. While no one wants to see terrorism on the T, random searches will not increase passenger safety.

The National Lawyers Guild believes that it is unconstitutional to set up checkpoints at locations that people use every day, such as subways and trains. The police are within their rights to set up checkpoints to prevent a specific harm. However, setting up checkpoints at every public facility does not prevent a specific harm and is not part of a free society. It is an action used by a police state.

The National Lawyers Guild does not believe that the police can conduct random searches. Random searches are never truly random. Police often target individuals stereotyped as being “suspicious” people of color, those who appear to be Middle Eastern, and youth. These searches needlessly interfere with the privacy of innocent passengers and are incompatible with a free democratic society. Random searches replace fear of terrorism with fear of the police. This policy is not only unconstitutional; it is wrong.

At selected stations during the week of June 28, the National Lawyers Guild will be distributing buttons for passengers that state “I DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH.” Passengers are urged to wear these buttons and let the MBTA know that they do not willingly consent to giving up their constitutional rights. (Sample letters and contact information will be available for download at the NLG website .) Guild members will also be distributing information outlining the proposed MBTA policy, letting passengers know what rights they have and what the police can and cannot do when they stop T passengers.

As first reported here, T police are already demanding ID from some riders, under threat not just of eviction from T property and vehicles (many of which operate on public streets) and denial of service by a government-owned and operated common carrier, but of detention. And the searches are not required by the USA Transportations Security Agency (TSA) general directives to transit agencies.

At least initially, the NLG campaign is focused on the searches, rather than the ID checks, but I presume that’s only because the T hasn’t yet officially admitted that it is demanding ID from riders, much less doing so under threat of detention — practices that go far beyond anything authorized by the Supreme Court’s decision this week in Hiibel v. Nevada .

Yesterday the T began distributing a brochure giving more details of the search practices they plan during the Democratic Party national convention in Boston the last week in July7, as well as a new proposed limit on the size of packages carried by riders:

7. All baggage, briefcases, packs, and boxes are subject to search.

8. Due to proximity to the Fleet Center, the Orange Line and highway buses will not permit packages onboard larger than 6” × 12” × 4” (about the size of a loaf of bread).

One can only imagine MBTA police beginning their questioning of bus and train riders, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Oddly, an MBTA press announcement also released yesterday makes no mention of a prohibition on larger packages, saying only that they are “very likely to be inspected”:

In the simplest terms, during the week of the DNC:

Briefcases and pocketbooks will be allowed, but they are subject to random inspections.

Anything larger is very likely to be inspected.

According to the Boston Herald :

MBTA Police Deputy Chief Thomas McCarthy said the preferred method of checking bags will be with bomb-sensing wands — similar to a handheld metal detector — operated by Transportation Security Administration employees. When TSA screeners aren’t available, one of the T’s four bomb-sniffing dogs will take a whiff. “The third options is: ‘Would you open your package?’ ” McCarthy said.

Also yesterday, the Boston Globe reported in detail on meetings between T officials and civil liberties group, and criticisms from the T’s own advisors:

The policy, for the convention week of July 26, is in addition to a random-check policy that the T will begin next month….

The baggage search policy, the first in the nation, has also been criticized by members of the T’s Rider Oversight Committee, whose members fear the searches will be invasive. The committee, which is made up of riders and transit and environmental advocates, was established after January’s fare increase to monitor service on the T….

The panel first proposed a resolution calling on the T to hold a public hearing before implementing the policy and then changed the request to a public meeting explaining the procedures and allowing public comment.

There are “no plans to hold a public hearing,” [MBTA spokesperson Joe] Pesaturo said. “It’s been properly vetted.”

[Addendum, 26 June 2004: More details on the search policy from the Globe .]

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 25 June 2004, 11:57 (11:57 AM)
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