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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Arrest of bus fare dodger ruled unlawful by Washington high court

The majority found a fare dodger did not know police were being used as fare enforcement — and therefore couldn't consent to interacting with one who eventually arrested him.

(CN) — An en banc Washington state Supreme Court ruled Thursday morning that transit law enforcement unlawfully seized a bus rider in Snohomish County for not paying his fare.

The ruling comes four years after the arrest of transit passenger Zachery Meredith, who boarded a Community Transit “Swift Blue Line” without paying. The “barrier-free” bus line allows passengers to pay in advance with tickets or prepaid cards, skipping gates, turnstiles and other barriers to collect fares.

However, Community Transit relies on police officers instead of civil fare enforcement to enforce fares, a practice that has been largely discontinued by other transit systems due to their prevailing, racially disproportionate impacts, according to Justice Mary I. Yu, who wrote the opinion for the court.

“Barrier-free transit systems must, and do, have the authority to ensure that passengers pay their fares. At the same time, transit passengers must not be ‘disturbed in [their] private affairs . . . without authority of law,’” Yu wrote. “The authority of transit systems and the rights of transit passengers need not conflict. However, striking the proper balance requires careful attention to the way in which fare enforcement is conducted.”

While Meredith rode the bus that day, two Snohomish County sheriff's officers were also onboard conducting fare enforcement with another, Sgt. Louis Zelaya, following in his patrol car. All three officers were in uniform, and at least one — Deputy Thomas Dalton — was armed.

As the two officers made their rounds to each passenger, they eventually reached Meredith, one of three passengers who failed to provide proof of payment. Consistent with protocol, the officers notified Zelaya that they would get off at the next bus stop to “deal with the three people at the next platform.”

Upon reaching the platform, Dalton detained Meredith to determine his history of transit violations. Meredith gave a false identity, prompting officers to run his fingerprints through a portable biometric fingerprint reader that allows them to scan the prints through an automated identification system through King County, Washington State Patrol and the FBI.

According to the opinion, the Sheriff’s Office recently acquired the fingerprint device through a pilot program intended for use when officers had probable cause for someone’s arrest but couldn't determine someone’s identity through other means.

Because Dalton didn't yet know Meredith’s identity, he wouldn’t have known whether Meredith had failed to pay his fare on more than one occasion in the last 12 months. But instead of citing him for failing to provide proof of payment, he believed he had reason to arrest Meredith for theft, thus justifying the fingerprint scan while he was handcuffed.

The scan revealed Meredith’s identity and his two outstanding warrants and he was promptly arrested, charged with making false or misleading statements to a public servant. Meredith filed a pretrial motion to suppress, arguing he was unlawfully seized when officers ordered him off the bus because they lacked reasonable cause to suspect he had committed a crime.

The Snohomish County District Court denied Meredith’s motion, and he was convicted by a jury trial and sentenced to 58 days in jail, which he had already served. Two courts affirmed Meredith's conviction on appeal.

But according to Yu, the Court of Appeals in State v. Meredith in “assumed, without deciding, that Meredith consented based the ‘contractual relationship [that] forms between the operator of a bus and a person choosing to ride it.'”

A deeply divided Washington state Supreme Court saw it differently.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Yu wrote that by choosing to ride the bus, Meredith may have “impliedly consented to a limited interaction with a person conducting fare enforcement while on board” — but not necessarily that he consented to Community Transit’s particular method of fare enforcement that day.

“Without evidence that Meredith was informed that fare enforcement on the bus may involve questioning by law enforcement officers, the state cannot meet its burden of proving that Meredith voluntarily consented to such an interaction merely by boarding,” Yu wrote. “Therefore, we do not reach the issue of whether the interaction between Meredith and Deputy Dalton exceeded the scope of Meredith’s consent. No such consent was given, nor could it be implied.”

Before concluding, Justice Yu wrote that “neither the federal special needs doctrine nor consent provides the authority of law necessary to justify the disturbance of Meredith’s private affairs in this case.”

But the majority tailored the opinion very narrowly.

“We reject only the particular method of fare enforcement used here, given the lack of legal justification in the record. Our holding is necessary both to preserve the constitutional privacy rights of transit passengers and to mitigate the known, racially disproportionate impact of such fare enforcement practices,” Yu wrote, reversing the decision to the Court of Appeals and remanding it to the trial court for further proceedings.

In her dissent, however, Justice Debra Stephens said the majority opinion is anything but narrow.

"The lead opinion correctly frames this case as presenting 'a narrow, as-applied challenge to the particular method of fare
enforcement used in this case.' Yet, it would announce a sweeping holding: contact with a police officer checking fares on a barrier-free bus amounts to an unconstitutional seizure," Stephens wrote. "While I share some of the concerns expressed by the lead opinion and would not rely on the doctrine of consent, I believe that our precedent more carefully describes when a seizure for constitutional purposes occurs. And the context of a contact with law enforcement always matters.

"Under the facts of this case, Deputy Dalton did not seize Meredith when he contacted him on the bus to check whether he had paid his fare."

Justices Steven C. González, Barbara A. Madsen, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and George B. Fearing joined the majority opinion. Justices Stephens, Charles W. Johnson, Susan Owens and G. Helen Whitener dissented. Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis did not participate.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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