More than two years after plans were first announced, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has finally implemented a program of random bag inspections. At unannounced checkpoints, riders will be selected at random and asked to submit to chemical analysis of any packages they are carrying. Any bags testing positive for explosive materials will be searched. Riders who are chosen for inspection may decline, but will not be permitted to enter the station with their bags.
This is essentially a modified version of a proposed program that stalled in October ’08 due to widespread outrage over the obvious civil liberties violations involved in carrying out suspicionless searches on public transit. Flex Your Rights played a leading role in opposing the program by organizing public protests and distributing informational flyers about how to refuse Metro searches. Our efforts generated significant media coverage, and even provoked frivolous legal threats from Metro itself, which the ACLU of the National Capital Area successfully rebutted.
As the months passed by without any searches, we came to believe that our campaign had been a success and that public opposition had, for once, succeeded in shutting down a shameful assault on our 4th Amendment rights. Sadly, it’s now clear that the program’s proponents were merely regrouping and revising their plans after meeting with an unexpected level of opposition.
Disappointed as we are, it’s amusing to note that Metro has lifted a couple tactics right out of the Flex Your Rights playbook in an effort to better defend their random search program against opposition from groups like Flex Your Rights. They’ve produced a brochure explaining the policy to riders (which is ironic since they threatened to sue us for our flyer), and even produced an educational video showing how the searches will be performed:
While the program remains an outrageous and completely unnecessary violation of civil liberties, we’re pleased that our efforts may have at least inspired Metro to better explain the policy so that members of the public understand their rights. One of our foremost concerns in a situation like this is that such policies may lead many innocent people to believe that their belongings may be legally searched by police any place at any time. Metro’s efforts to describe the policy in more detail will hopefully minimize that concern to some degree.
Unfortunately, nothing can change the fact that inspecting innocent people’s belongings in public places is a reckless violation of the 4th Amendment that tramples individual rights while failing to increase security. We’ll be following the situation closely and working with allies to consider options for bringing this policy to an end.