Random Searches on the New York Subway: A User’s Story

Today’s post will simply make note of an interesting (and alarming) email I’ve received from a reader. Please do share this widely.

Some time ago I was researching the random bag check policy for the NYC subway system and stumbled across your blog posting [on random searches on the New York subway].

Until today I had never been singled out for a random bag check nor had I ever been arrested.  When I entered the subway on 58th street/Columbus Circle today at around 1pm a police officer approached me and asked to search my backpack.  I thought about it for a moment and then declined.  He told me that since I declined I would not be allowed to enter the subway.  I told him that that was fine with me and that I would simply exit and take a taxi.  I exited and began to make my way down eight avenue on foot to flag a taxi.  Along the way, instead of researching the matter on my phone more extensively as I should have done, I pondered the logic and fairness of the situation.

Even though I had nothing to hide, for some reason I did not feel like having my privacy invaded.  I also questioned the efficacy of the search strategy.  I wondered what exactly the officer meant when he told me I could not enter the subway.  Did he mean I could not enter at the exact spot where he was conducting the search?  Did he mean I could not enter that particular line at any other entrance?  Did he mean that since I had declined the search I could never ride the subway ever again on any other day and on any other line?  The vagueness of his statement puzzled me.  Surely as a metro card carrying resident of NYC I would not be required to suspend all access to this vital means of public transportation simply because I had declined this one bag check.  Following this train of thought I figured that if I entered at another station where no bag searches were being conducted I might be able to lawfully enter since I would be doing so without declining a bag check.

Remembering your story and some other information I had recently read about the legality of declining bag searches in public spaces I felt compelled to put my theory to the test.  I proceeded to head back a block north to 54th street and entered the subway from a different station.  When I made it to the turnstiles there was no bag search being conducted.  I swiped my card and entered the station.  Roughly thirty seconds after I entered the station I was approached by a different officer.  It immediately became clear that the original officer had put out an A.P.B. on me.   I was arrested and taken to the 58th street/Columbus circle subway police station.  The arresting officer instructed me to stand and face the entry counter where a duty officer and his sergeant were sitting.  As I waited there patiently and silently the sergeant and duty officer began discussing a strange smell that they detected in the air.  They continued by directing sarcasm my way and eventually asked me if I had been smoking Marijuana.  I said no and told them that the reason I had declined the search was not because I had anything to hide but rather that I did not feel like having my privacy invaded.  They laughed and suggested that I was lying.  I was then put in a cell with Steve, a man of multiple prior arrests who had decided earlier this morning to enter the station without paying.  I spent the next four hours learning all about Steve’s life story while waiting to be processed.  Finally, after having my mug shot and finger prints taken I was released.  I had a brief courteous discussion with the booking officer about the charges and my court date.  He informed me that because the NYC subway station is owned by a private company and because I had entered the station after declining the search I was being charged with trespassing (in fact, the subway is a publicly owned system that is leased to the New York City Transit Authority).  Furthermore, because I had entered the station after having been told not to I was also being charged with disobeying a lawful order.  He further stated that both charges are violations, lesser than misdemeanors.

That said, I am baffled by the vagueness of this law.  Why did the arresting officer arrest me rather than simply insisting on searching my bag?  Even though I was located it stands to reason that the ease with which I could have entered elsewhere renders the system contradictory and innefectual.  Your personal experience is a testament to this very idea.  The fact that I was arrested does not support the theory that the system works.  It simply seems to illustrate that much time was wasted and that I was arrested without probable cause.  I was not arrested because I was suspected of being a terrorist.  Instead I was arrested because I declined to have my privacy invaded.

I’m not totally sure what compelled me to enter the subway so quickly and so near to where I had declined the search.  For sure curiosity played a major role.  Before I decided on that course of action I did consider the wisdom of waiting a little longer, walking a little further, or simply taking a taxi as I had originally intended.  On the one hand, I am glad that the police force exists and that they are actively trying to avert another disaster.  On the other hand, if I was a terrorist or a drug trafficker or anything else unsavory I certainly would not have been so stupid as to enter the train so close and so quickly after my initial brush with the law.  I am simply a law abiding resident of this great city who was trying to make my way home.

Just some food for thought as you ponder entering the subway system so soon after and so near to your next declined bag search.

From: Matthew Akers

2 comments on “Random Searches on the New York Subway: A User’s Story

  1. absolutely unbelievable…

  2. ashokbhatia says:

    For people in the emerging economies, this has now become a routine affair!

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