Civil Liberties

Subway Searches

Your baggage, please.

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Most people are resigned to being searched every time they enter an airport. Now baggage searches are spreading to light rail, subways, and buses. Just before the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) introduced a new security policy: All carry-on bags are now subject to search. The policy remained in place even after the convention was over.

The bags of randomly chosen passengers entering a station are swabbed with a chemical-sensing cloth, which is inserted into a machine. If the machine reports a positive result, in come the bomb-sniffing dogs.

The National Lawyers Guild and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have sued to stop the new policy. Lawyers Guild President Michael Avery argues that the searches are too intrusive, especially given that the policy was not prompted by any specific threat. "Law enforcement has only the vaguest, most general, speculative information," he says. "And I just don't think that kind of information is enough to compromise the privacy and freedom of everyday life."

Other cities are watching the case closely. "Virtually every other transit system in America has contacted us for information" about the new policy, according to MBTA Deputy Police Chief Tom McCarthy. On the other hand, none of the three major transit systems near the site of the Republican National Convention in New York —
MTA, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak—searched carry-on bags as part of their heightened security measures.