WMATA: come clean about bag searches, comply with MCCRC records request



Still from Metro Transit PD video of its bag search process

Last November, the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority (WMATA) police department announced it was resuming a controversial bag search procedure in which (allegedly) random customers are asked to submit to testing of their bags prior to entering the system.

On January 5th, MCCRC filed a “Public Access Records Policy” (PARP) request with WMATA asking for basic information regarding the bag search program: locations and times of deployments, procedures to assure random selections, numbers of false positives, search refusals, reports, costs, and program evaluations.

PARP requests are the WMATA counterpart for the better known “FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act) requests for federal records, and WMATA’s operating guidelines about them explicitly acknowledge the FOIA model.  Like the FOIA process, PARP process has rules, guidelines — and deadlines, which specify (see Section 7.10) that a decision whether to comply should happen within 20 working days (4 weeks) of the request, with the possibility of an additional 10 working day extension if obtaining the information is particularly difficult.

That’s 6 weeks in all —  and that deadline passed a few days ago, on Tuesday the 16th.

Our original request and subsequent correspondence with WMATA can be viewed at  “MuckRock,” a service facilitating FOIA requests like ours.  The MuckRock record shows that we’ve worked with WMATA’s legal department both by email and by phone, documenting our good faith interest in publishing the results as a news provider, narrowing our request from the past 5 years to the last 6 months, and not contesting a frankly outrageous estimate of 200 person hours and more than $4,000 for the 5 year request.  We’re assured that WMATA is working to retrieve the requested information — but we were also assured two weeks ago that we’d hear back by early the next week, and that didn’t happen either.

While we’re disappointed with the current breakdown in WMATA’s PARP process, we remain determined to see it through.  Perhaps this update may help.

Why oppose warrantless, suspicionless bag searches?

To tell the truth, the burden to explain shouldn’t really be on us, it should be on WMATA — and that’s what the PARP request does.  As we’ve said before, warrantless, suspicionless search programs aren’t just unconstitutional — they’re stupid.  And they’re not just stupid — they’re stupid by definition.  The Fourth Amendment is not an inconvenience or a luxury to law enforcement — it is wisdom itself.  What unconstitutional program of picking a few people out at random for no reason from tens of thousands of riders will ever work?  Why would that ever be better than insisting on police having a reason to search a bag?  As we accede to this kind of search and many others, what’s next? Random frisking on city sidewalks?  Oh wait, that’s happening too. Enough is enough.

We believe the information we’re seeking will bear us out.  That’s why it’s important that WMATA finally come clean about its bag search program.


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