News & Politics

Subway Searches: Round 2


In this July picture, the mayor is not selling candy for a basketball team or a school trip. No one is! But do NYPD subway searches violate people’s rights to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”? (Source:

Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to the subway bag searches implemented by the NYPD this summer after the second set of London transit bombings. The NYCLU’s contention has been that the searches violate riders’ protections under the Fourth Amendment.

“Wait,” you ask sheepishly, “which one’s the Fourth Amendment, again?” No worries; you aren’t alone. For a couple of months now, a small group (a member estimates the size at “four, maybe five people”) has been walking the subway platforms distributing business card-sized copies of the Framers’ text.

What’s the reaction been underground? “At first, most of the people who took the cards were people of color. They feel disenchanted already,” says Jay Gertzman, a retired English professor who’s one of the distributors. As time went on, he says, more people took the cards—some suits, a lot of Asians. Not everyone agrees with the sentiment, of course. “One lady asked me if I was a terrorist,” Gertzman says,

One curious aspect of the subway case is the issue of how frequent the searches are. The NYCLU has argued that because the searches are rare, they cannot be effective. One might also argue, however, that if the searches are rare, they don’t impinge significantly on riders’ rights. Gertzman sees it differently. “It’s not just those few people who are searched whose rights are violated. It’s everybody who thinks, ‘What should I put in my bag?'” he says. Under the Constitution, he says, “You aren’t really supposed to have to account for yourself,” especially in a subway car, which unlike a commercial airliner is public property.


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