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Judge Checks Cleveland Transit Over Fare Enforcement

(Photo by Aeroplanepics0112)

The Cleveland transit agency’s “proof of payment” system, which allows police officers to stop passengers and check whether they’ve paid their fares, has been ruled unconstitutional by a local judge. The decision could set a precedent for other transit agencies using officers to enforce payment, and one group of Pittsburgh advocates is already citing the ruling in its efforts to replace police with civilian checkers.

Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Emanuella Groves made the decision late last month, the Cleveland Scene reports, ruling that stops conducted by officers “decorated with the color of the law” violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

From the paper:

In her opinion, Judge Groves described acceptable stops by law enforcement and demonstrated that requiring every passenger to produce a fare card with no evidence (or “articulable suspicion”) that they did not pay is unconstitutional. Mere presence on the bus cannot be considered reasonable suspicion. Her opinion said that if RTA used non law-enforcement officers, the constitutional question would be off the table.

A group of Pittsburgh advocates has been trying to do just that with the Port Authority’s new cashless light-rail system (which is planned but not yet implemented) — switch law enforcement officers for a team of civilian enforcers. As Next City covered in May, the new system will allow armed officers to issue citations and check riders who don’t pay for criminal warrants. That’s raising red flags for many in the local immigrant community, who worry that such encounters could draw the attention of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and lead to deportations.

The Cleveland ruling has no bearing in Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, but advocates say it’s still significant.

“I think we’re celebrating the judge’s decision in Cleveland,” Laura Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit told the Post-Gazette. “You would hope the Port Authority would see the writing on the wall and move away from that system and not treat fare enforcement as a criminal matter.”

The decision could also ripple out to St. Louis, where MetroLink officers face unclear regulations as to whether their citations have any teeth with the local courts. And as more transit systems go cashless, the question of how — and by whom — fares will be enforced only becomes more pressing.

In Cleveland, the RTA has released a statement confirming that Healthline riders will now pay as they board, since police officers won’t be checking fares prior to boarding.

“While the city is considering its next steps and RTA is reviewing the impact of the [Groves] decision, RTA is modifying our process and testing it to determine the best way to employ the most efficient fare collection method without impairing on-time performance,” RTA wrote in a statement.