TriMet's practice of arbitrarily stopping MAX passengers and asking for proof of fare has been ruled unconstitutional.
In an opinion released Friday afternoon, Judge John A. Wittmayer wrote that a TriMet fare inspector and a transit officer illegally stopped and detained MAX passenger Ana del Rocío in March after asking for her MAX ticket. While del Rocío, who was stopped after exiting a MAX train in downtown Portland, could not immediately prove that she'd paid the fare, Wittmayer argued that neither official had a valid reason to suspect this before questioning her.
"Defendant was stopped and seized without individualized suspicion," Wittmayer writes. "Therefore, the stop of defendant was unlawful under... the Oregon Constitution."
Del Rocío, the state director of Oregon's Color PAC, was stopped during one of TriMet's routine mass fare inspections—where TriMet employees, assisted by transit police, ask everyone exiting a MAX train at a specific station for proof of fare. This practice replaces the more traditional subway-riding tradition, seen in cities like Chicago or New York, of passengers having to scan their ticket at a gate before boarding a train. It's been the only way TriMet has checked MAX tickets for years.
Del Rocío was initially stopped by TriMet employee Deanna George, but ultimately arrested for not giving her ID to Officer West Helfrich, one of many Portland Police officers contracted by TriMet to help conduct fare inspections. Since Helfrich couldn't confirm her identity, he charged del Rocío with giving a police officer false information.
In court, state prosecutor Katie Suver argued that TriMet fare stops are legal "administrative searches," as defined by past Oregon case law. A fare stop isn't meant to result in criminal sanctions, Suver said, since it's conducted by a TriMet employee. The fact that Suver was arguing this in court with the intention to criminally prosecute del Rocío did not help her case.
In his opinion, Wittmeyer wrote this contradiction "belied" Suver's case.
It's not immediately clear how TriMet plans on making its fare inspection tactics constitutional. In a statement to the Oregonian, TriMet said it was "evaluating the judge's opinion and determining next steps." Until then, TriMet says it will "continue fare enforcement."
It is clear that this decision will fundamentally change the way TriMet polices its passengers.
"Being wrongfully arrested, jailed, and prosecuted nearly broke me," wrote del Rocío in a statement shared with the ACLU of Oregon. "No person should ever be made to feel confused or afraid by officers that are supposed to be keeping us safe. Our task now, long overdue, is to figure out a better, more humane and dignified way to treat our transit riders."