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WA Supreme Court preserves transit fare checks but cites privacy concerns

caption: The Temple of Justice in Olympia is home to the Washington State Supreme Court.
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The Temple of Justice in Olympia is home to the Washington State Supreme Court.
NW News Network

In the decision “State v. Meredith” Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court found that a man was "unlawfully seized" by Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies while riding Community Transit, when they detained him for fare evasion in 2018.

Zachery Meredith filed a motion saying he was “unlawfully seized when he was contacted by the Deputy and ordered off the bus, as the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion that a crime had been committed.” Meredith was taken off the bus when he could not show deputies a ticket or ORCA card. He was subsequently arrested and convicted of a gross misdemeanor for providing a false name to police.

Justices said they rejected the method of fare enforcement used in Meredith’s case, citing constitutional privacy rights and the “known, racially disproportionate impact of such fare enforcement practices.” However, in writing the lead decision Justice Mary Yu said it does not “strike down any statute permitting designated persons to request proof of fare payment on barrier-free transit systems.”

Tobin Klusty, Meredith’s attorney, said the court’s recognition that law enforcement can’t seize people without suspicion of criminal activity is good news for Washington residents.

“This is not a decision that leads to the end of public transportation in any way, shape, or form,” Klusty said. “Really what it’s focusing on is the use of law enforcement to interact with the public in this particular way.”

The court’s ruling was fractured, and lacked a majority opinion.

Nathan Sugg, with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, said the various opinions contain “suggestions” about fair transit enforcement, but stop short of prohibiting law enforcement from being involved in transit fare enforcement.

“The transit authorities will set those rules, they’ll decide what fare enforcement looks like in the future,” said Sugg, who defended the state against Meredith's appeal. “This case says that the current practices are within the bounds of the Washington State Constitution.”

The court’s lead opinion highlighted examples of regional agencies use of civilian “ambassadors” rather than law enforcement, saying that process does not present the same privacy concerns when performed by civilians.

Justice Yu wrote, “People must pay for transit or can be ejected. However, in this case, Meredith was asked for proof of payment by law enforcement officers, who then identified and arrested him using resources that no civilian conducting fare enforcement could have accessed.”

Community Transit maintains a contract with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, but in a statement the agency’s CEO Ric Ilgenfritz said it also relies on civilian ambassadors:

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling keeps the current statute in place, which allows transit agencies to continue collecting fares and enforcing payment. We are reviewing the ruling as well as our own procedures to ensure we are in compliance with the law and treating all of our customers fairly. Community Transit’s Service Ambassadors handle fare checking on our system with an emphasis on educating and helping customers, by giving them information on how to pay and/or how to obtain an ORCA or ORCA LIFT Card, along with other transit initiatives that promote transit equity," Ilgenfritz said. "Our Service Ambassador model has been successful in helping customers learn how to use transit and has been adopted by other agencies as an industry best practice.”

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