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Posted at 2:40 PM ET, 12/16/2010

Bag the Metro searches

By Robert Thomson

Metro's decision to start randomly searching its passengers' private property reinstates a policy announced abruptly in October 2008 and then suspended before the searches began. Maybe Metro figured that if it was okay for the TSA to grab air travelers' private parts, it would be okay for transit officers to open up riders' bags and packages.

Who knows? There wasn't any more discussion this time than last time before Metro announced the passenger searches, as reported by Ann Scott Tyson in this blog posting.

Metro security sign.jpg Metro photo shows warning to riders.

I'd like to repeat what I said in 2008, because I think it's just as true today: About half the letters of complaint I get each week concern Metro. Washingtonians by the scores complain about eating and drinking on the trains, about garbled announcements on the loud speakers, about the handholds being too high and far away for riders to grab. They think police and school officials should control rowdy behavior after class. They think the trains break down too often. But the constituency for random, occasional property searches has yet to be heard from.

This isn't like an airport screening, to which 100 percent of passengers are subjected. The thoroughness of the airport screening makes it very effective as a security measure. The effectiveness of the deterrent, plus the demonstrated consequences of failure on Sept. 11, 2001, created broad public understanding that the security searches were reasonable.

Metro says that the program is like New York's, which was challenged and upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The decision was called MacWade v. Kelly.

[Update: Metro also says that this time, the search plan is different: The searches are expected to take only minutes and are designed to be "non-intrusive." The police will randomly select bags or packages to check for hazardous materials using "ionization technology and K-9 units trained to detect explosive materials." Carry-on items will generally not be opened and inspected unless the equipment indicates a need for further inspection. What Metro thinks of as "non-intrusive" probably wouldn't match what I think of as "unintrusive," should I have the honor of being ionized, or selected for special observation by a large dog.]

Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, for whom I have great respect, came online in 2008 to explain why he thought it was necessary to subject train and bus riders to these random searches. You can read a transcript here.

Back then, the idea of transit police randomly searching riders provoked an upwelling of interest in the Fourth Amendment, which says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Or as a rider might put it: The government better have a pretty good reason for wanting to know what's in my knapsack, because otherwise, it's none of their business.

By Robert Thomson  | December 16, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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"This isn't like an airport screening, to which 100 percent of passengers are subjected."

Don't give them any ideas...

Posted by: pooooop423 | December 16, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

2nd Circuit rulings don't matter here in the 4th Circuit. I hope someone challenges these searches.

Posted by: pooooop423 | December 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: The transit authority clearly doesn't need my help in coming up with creative new ways to annoy passengers. Metro says these random searches will be fast an easy. On the other hand, authorities who try to justify these invasions of our privacy almost always note that they are designed to create a scene. They don't believe that random searches are very likely to catch a terrorist. The deterrent -- at least according to the authorities -- is that a would-be terrorist would spot a commotion at the station and turn around.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | December 16, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, terrorists HAVE taken lives on public transit systems in other countries (U.K., Spain being a notable two), so I understand where Transit P.D. is coming from. But I, and I think most Metro riders, are FAR more afraid of being killed on a Metro train due to equipment failure, maintenance neglect, etc. than we are from a terrorist bomb. Equipment failure has killed more Metro riders than terrorism, and that's a fact. No amount of baggage search is going to do anything about that, or make me feel safer when I'm on a Metro train.

Posted by: taupecat | December 16, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

If these searches were truly necessary, we'd have suicide bombings in security theater lines.

Have there been any?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 16, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

If a bag search is quick and easy it isn't thorough.

Are they only going to search bags? What about those belts and vest that suicide bombers wear?

Posted by: Pensfans | December 16, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

Terrorist enters Metro station...
Officer: You've been selected for a random bag check.
Terrorist: I don't consent to a search.
Officer: Then you'll need to leave.
Terrorist: OK, bye.

Terrorist walks over to the other station entrance and enters unmolested. Terrorist then proceeds with his or her villainous plot.

Now can you please fire whomever you hired to perform these worthless searches and put the funds toward fixing the escalators? Those are the real death traps in Metro.

Thank you.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 16, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

The point I find compelling is that, at least at the closer-in stations, it's easy to avoid the bag searches by simply going somewhere else. Searches going on at Foggy Bottom? Walk to Farragut West. Searches going on at Metro Center? Walk the two blocks to Gallery Place. Etc. Yeah, it's harder at the suburban stations, especially for the people who ride the bus and so can't turn around and go drive somewhere else, but it just underscores the silliness of the whole thing.

BTW, regarding Second Circuit versus Fourth Circuit, the Metrorail system falls within two circuits. The DC portion of the system falls within the DC Circuit.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 16, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Search me if you choose, but you may not like what you find in my bags and I'm not speaking about any sort of weapon.

Posted by: daughterofold | December 16, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

There needs to be a Metro Riders Union!

Organize a one-day Metro riders strike.

Organize a "Bring Harmless but Suspicious-Looking Packages onto the Metro Day."

Organize a "Buy Paper Farecards with Nickels Day."

If people can organize a "No Pants Metro Ride," they can organize protests that shows Metro we are not sheep.

Posted by: pmendez | December 16, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

The Smithsonian Museums all do bag searches and that has not bothered me. I've worked on the Hill and in the Executive Branch so am accustomed to those screenings as well as all bags being x-rayed -- every day of the week. TSA pat-downs are another matter.

The Metro is such an attractive terrorist target. Perhaps this is being instituted because of the heightened holiday threat of terrorism.

I don't know how effective random searches by Metro's dolts would be. But if turning my shoulder bag inside-out smooths a process that could prevent a slaughter, I'm inclined to be supportive. Especially during the holidays.

Will be interested to view others' reasoned comments.

Posted by: Gidgmom | December 16, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Sure search our bags. I didnt want to get to work on time or make my commuter train home anyway.
Soon they'll be making sure we have our "papers" on us at all times.
I'll just walk. Thanks.

Posted by: racheljean | December 16, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

To all those who are complaining:

Please, follow through on your idle threats of using alternate transportation. I look forward to a little more elbow room during the rush hour commute.

Talk is cheap. I'm all for random searches. Especially if it keeps a few extra morons off my train.

Posted by: stinkyhangdown | December 16, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Especially brown people, right stinkyhangdown?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | December 16, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

"The searches are expected to take only minutes..."

Yeah, because when you are rushing to catch a train the last thing you want is a high school drop out with a GED and attitude to rifle through your stuff...

Posted by: damnit79 | December 16, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but really Metro just can't win. do the searches and people complain. don't do them, something happens and someone sues them because they didn't do enough to protect us. Do your part people. deal. Plus. how is it an invasion of privacy? They are not searching bags - they used the word inspecting, just using technology to see if there is anything in your bag indicating an explosive or something dangerous. It doesn't make me feel safer, but in the long run, it is a proactive measure.

Posted by: mary_delafe | December 16, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I heard in the news that there is a threat of suicide bombings in US over holidays so that is probably why they are doing this.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | December 16, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: random-adam | December 16, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Whine, whine whine no matter what the issue.

Posted by: elwoll | December 16, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I take issue even with the assertion that airline security theater has made us any safer since 9/11, and about the only organization I trust less than TSA is Metro (well, excluding the US legislature).

Posted by: tbailsh | December 16, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

For those riders dependent on mass transit, these will not be "consent" searches as Chief Taborn implies. If they must use the system, then they must also be subjected to what amounts to a forced—and therefore ILLEGAL—search. An elderly citizen on a fixed income, someone with anxiety issues that cannot drive, or one of the many working poor may not be able to take a cab and may not be able to walk miles to work. I can only hope that WMATA will at least be intelligent enough to post officers at both entrances when it implements this benighted, empty, ill-conceived and ineffective plan to ensure that these unfortunate souls can't sneak in the other way along with the terrorists.

This is ridiculous! This policy doesn't make me feel safer—all it's doing is setting off my B***S*** meter. We have not been presented with any actual evidence by Chief Taborn's evasive answers. He offered no statistics from New York or Boston supporting the thesis that bag inspections will improve our safety. I understand that it’s legal for police to search your car during a traffic stop given sufficient cause, and I’m willing to accept this rule because at least they’ve already pulled you over for violating one law. But these searches amount to being searched for walking around, not for doing anything illegal.

Since officers’ duties are being diverted to these inspections, who will be doing their former jobs? Will WMATA be paying over-time? How is WMATA planning to pay those “monies needed for… manpower hours”? BTW, Taborn, the word is “wages” (ad hominem, I know, but really that was the last straw).

Fix the escalators. Replace the tin-can cars. Keep to the published schedule. Prevent harassment and theft. Then, only then, will I believe that these searches are not a complete waste of time on a system that is otherwise detrimental to my physical and mental safety.

Posted by: eriu203 | December 16, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

So the good Dr. Gridlock approves of the invasive groin checks, of children receiving ionizing radiation (potentially carcinogenic) and being groped in private areas by strangers (as a condition of flying to Disney World). Go back to studying traffic.

Posted by: cellus | December 16, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

So, are they planning to open gift packages?? Bad timing to start this. Metro wants people to give up their cars, but this will make it even more difficult to use Metro to go shopping or to go to someone's birthday party, etc., with a wrapped gift...

Posted by: Kathy8 | December 16, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Let's search the groins of rowdy teenagers at 3 p.m.


Posted by: bs2004 | December 16, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

If they can produce a warrant and probable cause, then fine, search my bag. If they can't, they can leave me alone and go read the 4th amendment.

Posted by: mvm_ffx | December 16, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see people complaining about this. I've been shocked how silent people have been about airport security. These complaints give me hope that maybe America won't become like the old Soviet Union.

Posted by: dkf747 | December 16, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

This is classic security theater. If it is only susposed to take a couple minutes and I have 2 minutes until a train comes, good you have two minutes. I miss the train and Metro will have just bought themselves a cab fare.

Posted by: TuscanRed | December 16, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

It's a bad idea because it WON'T WORK, not just due to the invasion of privacy.

Posted by: mucus99 | December 17, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

This is indeed classic security theater. If they were screening everyone, then maybe they can justify it. But since they're not, it's a waste of everyone's time and money.

Posted by: SchuminWeb | December 20, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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