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30 Apr, 2013 20:39

New law will ban protesters from riding mass transit in California

New law will ban protesters from riding mass transit in California

Risking arrest isn’t the only obstacle for Northern California protesters — under a new rule about to go into effect, political demonstrators could lose their right to ride public transportation.

Starting next week, law enforcement officers policing the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and other cities can issue bus and subway bans for unruly passengers — and according to one local news report, that power could be used to prevent political protesters from getting to demonstrations or essentially going anywhere.

Under the recently passed State Assembly Bill 716, BART can issue “prohibition” orders to any passenger cited or arrested for certain offenses, essentially blacklisting some people from boarding public transit vehicles if they’ve been charged with certain crimes.

BART Board President Tom Radulovich told Bay City News the law is “an important safety initiative to keep our employees and riders safe,” adding, “We’re very concerned that for the past few years folks have been assaulting our station agents.”

"We are really wanting to send the message that if you are going to come onto our system and be unruly or violent, there are going to be consequences,” BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told local ABC affiliate KGNO News.

But while the new bill will provide BART police the authority to immediately revoke riding privileges for persons arrested or convicted of acts involving violence, threats of violence, lewd or lascivious behavior or possession or sale of drugs on area transit, those charged with minor infractions could be targeted too. “AB 716 won't only target violent behavior,” KGNO reported. “It can be applied to protestors who have been arrested during free-speech movements.”

The law will allow for prohibition orders to be issued on-the-spot if a person is just once arrested or convicted for a misdemeanor or felony involving lewd, violent or drug-related acts in a BART zone, but passengers cited three or more times for minor infractions in just as many months are subject to the ban as well.

Under the bill, a transit district may issue a prohibition order to any person charged with violating a number of local statutes, including Section 640 of state Penal Code — the law that goes after riders accused of “Willfully disturbing others on or in a system facility or vehicle by engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior” and those “Willfully blocking the free movement of another person in a system facility or vehicle.

Although the official statute includes a note from the state declaring that Section 640 “shall not be interpreted to affect any lawful activities permitted or First Amendment rights protected under the laws of this state or applicable federal law,” allowing BART officers to ban users even accused by law enforcement of a misdemeanor could disenfranchise a huge percentage of their rider base and has critics already warning of potential authoritarian overreach.

"Certain instances have happened over the years that have caused some tragic things to happen, but you got to be careful who your profile," BART passenger Kadmiel McCrory told KGNO.

Indeed, one doesn’t have to look too deep to divulge instances of arguable overreach in not just the Bay Area but on the BART system as well. On the morning of January 1, 2009, BART Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shot an unarmed, 22-year-old passenger, Oscar Grant, on an Oakland train platform. The killing of Grant remains a highly contested issue among Bay Area residents, and has spawned a number of large protests impacting the BART system, including a November 2010 demonstration that led to 152 arrests. Then in July 2011, BART police shot and killed another passenger — a mentally ill homeless man name Charles Blair Hill — who is alleged to have thrown a knife at an officer. The response that occurred as a result can easily be considered a precursor to enacting AB 716.

Following the 2011 shooting death of Hill, BART passengers orchestrated a massive protest that made national headlines thanks in part to the involvement of Internet hacktivist group Anonymous. A rally for Hill days after his death began peacefully but ended in violence and at least three dozen arrests. When a second protest was planned the following month, BART officials responded by having cell phone service shut down in four separate train stations to prevent demonstrators from coordinating their actions.

"We're going to take steps to make sure our customers are safe," BART spokesman Jim Allison said in a statement that August. "The interruption of cell phone service was done Thursday to prevent what could have been a dangerous situation. It's one of the tactics we have at our disposal. We may use it; we may not. And I'm not sure we would necessarily let anyone know in advance either way."

Although that protest never materialized as planned, Anonymous responded by leaking the names, passwords and other identifying information for more than 2,000 customers of a BART-affiliated website, announcing in a statement, “we will not tolerate censorship.”

Anonymous demands that this activity revolving around censorship cease and desist and we know you are already planning to do this again," the hacktivists wrote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union opposed the decision to throttle cell service as well.

Now with AB 716 going into effect, protesters may once again find they are unwelcome to ride on the fifth-busiest heavy rail rapid transit system within the United States. Accumulating only three easy-to-obtain infractions in just 90 days can cause a prohibition order to be issues, and when the law goes into effect on Monday, BART officers will actually be provided with the names and photographs of prohibited individuals in order to keep them from riding mass transit, BART police Chief Kenton Rainey told the San Francisco Appeal. According to Rainey, officers’ computers will contain information about active orders, and any persons picked up or cited on the BART system for new crimes can be matched against the database to see their status.

Rainey added that BART officers will go through training to work with special-needs riders, including the homeless and mentally ill. Even if one of those passengers is cited with a prohibition order, though, it might take a lengthy appeal process to have their ban rescinded. Prohibition orders restrict passengers from riding for anywhere from 30 days up to one year.