Cleveland Judge Has Ruled RTA's 'Proof of Payment' Fare Enforcement Method Unconstitutional

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SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
In an important decision that has taken immediate effect, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Emanuella Groves ruled on Oct. 26 that the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's (RTA's) "Proof of Payment" system used on the Red Line Rapid and the HealthLine is unconstitutional.

"The court rejects RTA's policy of utilizing its law enforcement officers to perform fare enforcement functions requiring officers to stop passengers without reasonable articulable suspicion," the opinion read.

Those stops, performed by armed police officers, "decorated with the color of law," are, according to the court, a violation of passengers' Fourth Amendment rights to be secure in their person against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Judge Groves requested a constitutional review during a routine fare enforcement case. A passenger had been pulled from a HealthLine bus by RTA police on July 13 when he'd failed to produce a fare card. The defendant later testified that the fare card machine had malfunctioned at the station where he'd boarded (Euclid and Superior, in East Cleveland) and that he'd paid a cash fare once he was on the bus. He was nevertheless cited for fare evasion. The court then raised the question of the stop's constitutionality.

The resulting decision was definitive: The practice of using police officers to enforce fares constitutes a "systemic attempt to arbitrarily police passengers" and "infringes upon [passengers'] Fourth Amendment rights."

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.

But "there must be an intermediary between police and passengers to prevent arbitrary and abusive police encounters," the opinion read.

The decision comes in the wake of a September report by Scene that morale in the fare enforcement division of RTA's police force is extremely low. Due to aggressive, if unofficial, new policies that officers said have removed their discretion in encounters with riders, many part-time officers have left the force and others said they feel like robots in an attempt to generate revenue for the cash-strapped transit system.

RTA released a statement Wednesday confirming that HealthLine riders must now pay as they board if transit police officers do not check 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 to Scene.

And while RTA admitted that operations might slow down "over the next several days," regular riders are bemoaning a severe lag in efficiency.
 

The local transit advocacy group Clevelanders for Public Transit issued a statement in response calling on RTA to immediately take the following actions "in order to implement convenient and equitable fare enforcement:"

● Commit to establishing a system-wide proof-of-payment system:
○ To be enforced by unarmed fare inspectors
○ With consistent inspection across routes and time of day
● Decriminalize fare evasion by reducing fare evasion to a civil penalty as opposed to a criminal offense.
● Reinstate a 2.5 hour period for a single-trip fares.
● Expand all-door boarding to include other heavily used routes in order to reduce trip time and operating costs.
"All-door boarding should eventually expand to all routes," Clevelanders for Public Transit argued. "With this approach, RTA would shift to a pro-rider
approach that improves transit for all, especially riders who may not have complete information."

As for the fare-evasion case against the passenger who was stopped in July: It was dismissed.

"Since the initial stop was unconstitutional..." read the opinion, "the issue of fare evasion is moot."

Here's the complete Groves decision:
See related PDF Groves_RTA_fareenforcement.pdf


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