Blue coat, purple backpack and PATH searches

So a few years ago, in the wake of Bush’s declaration of a war on terror, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with the NYC subway (through the NYPD) started randomly searching passengers before they entered the trains. One could refuse but would have to leave for another station. At the time I wrote a story, urging riders to refuse to be searched. Lawsuits cropped up and courts upheld the illegal searches. And in 2006 the Department of Homeland Security came to the PATH to show off its newest, high-tech equipment to search commuters.

And even though I commute every day on my dear PATH (I really do love it, even though some commuters don’t know to move all the way in) I had never been stopped by the cops who occasionally hung around the station. Until today.

As I was walking to swipe my card, I saw their eyes on me and then heard, “Excuse me miss… we’d like to search your bag.” I looked at them, pissed they were interrupting my morning routine, pissed they were searching me for no reason, other than that I caught their eye, and pissed at the idiocy — and passive acquiescence — to the whole dumb thing. I turned around to leave and walk to the station several blocks down. They told me again they wanted to search my bag.

I told them that they couldn’t search my bag and I was going to another station. They told me the search would take no time (further proof that this whole thing is just a placebo) and I angrily said, “It’s not about that. It’s about civil liberties.” Yeah, all you cynics, I said it. They told me I may be denied entry at another station. Annoyed, I demanded their badge numbers and names, scrawling it on the back of a booklet from work.

I left the station and got on at Exchange Place, adding about 15-20 minutes onto my commute.

During this exchange, one of the officers looked at me and said, “Blue coat, purple backpack.” (I wear a puffy blue coat and a bright purple overstuffed backpack. It’s what a 12-year old wears who wants to make sure traffic can see her at night.)

I know his meaning — I’ll be stopped tomorrow. While I stood up today, I know convenience will win out tomorrow and I’ll acquiesce. Shit, that’s not exactly an inspiring ending, is it?

Postscript: I haven’t entirely given up. I’m researching to see if any organizations are interested in bringing this issue back to court. I’ve e-mailed the NJCLU, filled out their Mass Transit Random Search Report Form and Flex Your Rights to see if I have any recourse. No answer yet but we’ll see.

March 19, 2008 - Posted by | Non-Fiction | , , , , ,


  1. I got searched once at Journal Square. I felt shitty for not refusing, but I was in a rush and I knew it would take longer for me to get to Grove St than to submit to the search. I considered telling the cops I think random searches are unconstitutional and ineffective, but then it seemed even more ridiculous to let them search me.

    Kudos, and thanks, to you for refusing to be searched. And let us know if anything comes back from the orgs you contacted.

    Comment by Shane | March 24, 2008

  2. Wow, what a story. You’re very brave, girl with the purple backpack 🙂

    Comment by Emma | March 24, 2008

  3. Awww, you guys are the best — thanks! So far, no word from the NJ-CLU, which is not really surprising.

    Flex Your Rights said via e-mail:
    “My guess is that there’s little you can do about this, unfortunately.
    They ultimately did let you go, so your rights weren’t violated in
    any significant sense. Depending on what specifically they said to
    you, you could file a complaint alleging unprofessionalism, however.
    That might be worth looking into. They have no business harassing
    people who merely asserted constitutional rights.”

    The officers weren’t unprofessional and that’s not what my issue is anyway. I want to challenge the constitutionality of searching people on the PATH. It looks like so far the subway searches have been upheld and I’m unaware if the NJ-CLU has done much of anything on PATH searches.

    Shane — No reason to feel shitty! While *technically* folks can refuse, it’s a major inconvenience and next time I’m sure I’ll let them search me, just so I can get where I’m going on time. It doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all.

    Comment by warprompts | March 25, 2008

  4. That mutt pic is way too adorable to be the image for “War Prompts.”

    Comment by Emma | March 26, 2008

  5. Frank would like you to judge him for his brains, not his looks. You should know better, Pollin.

    Comment by warprompts | April 6, 2008

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