Miami-Dade Also Turns to Passenger Searches on Transit Systems

In the wake of last month's London subway bombings, thousands of Metrorail passengers could face random searches by uniformed Miami-Dade police officers in the not-too-distant future.

Miami-Dade Transit and police officials confirmed Friday that they are finalizing the details for a comprehensive passenger search program.

Several people familiar with the talks said a system could be in place as early as next week.

"It's important that our passengers feel safe and that we're doing everything we can to make them safe," said Transit Director Roosevelt Bradley.

"But that doesn't mean we want to violate anyone's rights," he added.

Many details are still being hashed out, including manpower and budgeting, said Miami-Dade Police spokeswoman Lt. Veronica Ferguson.

An unknown but relatively small number of uniformed Miami-Dade police officers will conduct the searches -- not the hired Wackenhut security guards that normally patrol the 21 Metrorail stations.

Bomb-sniffing dogs will be deployed to ride randomly selected cars, as they have whenever the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declares an "orange" or "elevated" terror alert on mass-transit systems.

Along with New York, Washington and Chicago, Miami continues to be mentioned as a high-profile -- but nonspecific -- terror target by Homeland Security.

Bradley said the Miami-Dade searches will be modeled after those implemented July 22 in New York subways.

Police there are posted at 50 of the 469 subway stations and search the bags and backpacks of every fifth passenger unless someone raises particular suspicions.

"Clearly, they need to watch for somebody suspicious. If somebody walks in, in this kind of heat, wearing a heavy overcoat, that ought to catch somebody's attention," Bradley said.

But the New York program has drawn the ire of plenty of critics. On Thursday, the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the city, claiming that random searches of riders' bags at subway stations violates constitutional privacy rights.

"Searching thousands of riders without any suspicion that they have done anything wrong is unprecedented, unproductive and unconstitutional," said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman.

Experts acknowledge that it would be virtually impossible to completely "lock down" any major American transit system, searching every person who boards a train or bus.

Terry Coble, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said random search programs create the illusion of increased security, but hold little promise of actually stopping someone carrying explosives.

"We probably wouldn't support it here. If you think about it, a random search is not going to stop a terrorist," Coble said.

"It's really ineffective. It diverts police resources into an avenue that won't make it any safer."

Bruce Winick, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami, said transit riders, like airline passengers, surrender some of their right to privacy when they board a bus or train.

"While we want to zealously safeguard our freedoms under the Constitution, our expectations of privacy are reduced when we enter a Metrorail station or an airport," Winick said.

"It's not the same as if we were just walking on the street or in the privacy of our own home."

On the average weekday, more than 48,000 people board a Metrorail train.

A vast majority of the riders travel between the Civic Center/Jackson Memorial Hospital in downtown Miami and Dadeland South in Kendall.

Another 25,000 people board the downtown Metromover on an average weekday.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press