In State v. Meredith, the WA Court of Appeals held that a bus passenger consents to a warrantless search and seizure consisting of a bus fare enforcement officer requests the passenger provide proof of payment.
The defendant Mr. Meredith was riding the Swift regional transit bus in Everett late one morning. Two officers from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office boarded to conduct fare enforcement. When conducting fare enforcement, officers would board a bus at a stop and then ask individual passengers for proof of payment while the bus was driving from one stop to the next. A “chase vehicle” would follow the bus to help with identifying and processing anyone ordered off the bus for nonpayment.
Officer Dalton moved to the back of the bus. He began working his way forward and saying “proof of payment or ORCA card” to each passenger in a conversational tone. His partner moved to the front of the bus and worked backward. The bus drove to its next stop while the officers checked for proof of payment.
Officer Dalton requested “proof of payment or ORCA card” from Meredith, who began to check his pants and backpack. Failure to provide proof of payment could result in a notice of infraction or arrest. The bus continued along its route, and Meredith searched for four or five minutes without producing proof of payment. Officer Dalton ordered him to disembark at the next stop, and they left the bus together.
Officer Dalton asked Meredith for his name and identification. Meredith gave a fake name. Officer Dalton radioed dispatch to run the name, and it produced no returns in either Washington or Colorado. Officer Dalton suspected Meredith gave a fake name. Officer Zelaya arrived to help determine Meredith’s identity.
Officer Zelaya used a mobile fingerprint reader to scan Meredith’s fingerprints. He learned Meredith’s real name and that he had two outstanding felony warrants. Meredith was arrested on his warrants and for committing third degree theft of services for nonpayment of fare. He was charged with Making a False Statement to a Public Servant.
Pretrial, Meredith moved to suppress evidence resulting from Officer Dalton’s fare enforcement. The trial court denied the motion. A jury found Meredith guilty of making a false statement. Meredith appealed under arguments that his constitutional rights were violated by the officers when they executed an unauthorized and warrantless seizure.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals said the Washington Constitution provides, “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Furthermore, the WA Constitution protects against unauthorized seizures by government, despite not using the word “seize.”
However, the Court emphasized that Meredith did not allege his privacy was violated. It reasoned that the analysis does not not depend upon the “privacy” of information requested when police merely request proof of payment on public transit. Therefore, a person can be unlawfully seized without a violation of their privacy.
Next, the Court analyzed whether Meredith validly consented to being seized. “We consider whether his consent was voluntary, whether the seizure was limited to the scope of the consent granted, and whether consent was granted by a party with authority to do so,” said the Court. “We determine whether consent was voluntary by considering the totality of the circumstances from the perspective of a reasonable—meaning innocent—person.”
“Here, Meredith freely chose to contract with Swift Transit for transportation. He agreed to pay and provide proof of payment. And as a reasonable rider, he necessarily understood his duty to pay his fare and provide proof of payment when asked. Thus, like the civilian base visitor in Farkas, Meredith was aware of the possible seizure of his person and consented to it.” ~WA Court of Appeals
The Court concluded by saying Meredith voluntarily consented to Officer Dalton’s initial contact. With that the Court affirmed Meredith’s conviction.
Please review my Search & Seizure Legal Guide and contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.