Constitutionality of Subway Searches in NYC Go to Trial

NY Civil Liberties Union tries to block searches, arguing searches have 'no meaningful value'


A police official defended the city's random searches of subway riders Monday, testifying that in the fight against terrorism, some searches are better than none at all.

In a perfect world, all the people who enter the subways would have their possessions searched, New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner David Cohen said.

"More is better than some - and some is better than none," said Cohen, who spent much of a three-decade career at the CIA analyzing the threat of terrorism.

The trial that got under way Monday before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman centers on a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several subway riders.

At issue are the random searches that were put in place in the nation's largest subway system after deadly terrorist bombings in London's subway system in July.

The NYCLU said in court papers that its own survey from Aug. 25 to Sept. 16 found a total of just 34 searches. The subway system contains 468 stations serving millions of passengers.

The search program, the group said, "has no meaningful value in preventing the entry of explosive devices into the system by the terrorists the NYPD is attempting to thwart."

The city maintains that the mere presence of a random search program, regardless of how it is administered, is a valuable tool to thwart terrorists who prefer to target vulnerable areas with a low police presence.

City lawyers have noted that an al-Qaida training manual advising terrorists to avoid police checkpoints gives the city some justification for its random searches of bags entering the subway system.

"We are confident when the judge hears the evidence, he will find that the bag searches are perfectly constitutional and designed to protect the safety of all New Yorkers and visitors," said Michael Cardozo, head of the city's law office.

So far, the city has been successful in efforts to fight the lawsuit.

Berman already has ruled that the city did not have to tell the NYCLU specific information about how it conducts its random searches, including the number of subway stations each day where no searches were done.

"The city may be able to demonstrate that the Subway Search Program effectively deters terrorism precisely because it is random and unpredictable," the judge wrote in a decision.

In its court papers, the NYCLU insisted it had the law on its side, saying the searches were "unprecedented in this country, and no court has ever endorsed anything like it."

It said it supports reasonable security measures but suggested that the searches were akin to stopping people randomly on the street and searching them since the subway system "is a direct, physical extension of the sidewalks of New York City."

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On the Net:

Civil liberties union: http://www.nyclu.org/

Transit authority: http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/


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