Justices weigh bus passengers' rights

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday debated bus passengers' rights in a case testing the limits of officers' authority to seek out possible drug dealers or terrorists on public transportation.

Most justices seemed unswayed by arguments that passengers might feel coerced when officers board and ask permission to search their belongings.

Larry D. Thompson, deputy attorney general, said that officers should not be saddled with court-imposed rules for conducting sweeps.

"Buses in today's environment are vulnerable, vulnerable to specific public safety concerns," he told the court.

The case of two men arrested with drugs on a Greyhound bus in Florida came to the court as private airline travelers deal with baggage searches and more intrusive personal checks for weapons.

Public transportation riders may incorrectly believe they have to agree to searches, Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Justices have a chance to tell police who want to look for drugs or evidence of other crimes that they must first inform passengers of their legal rights.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist warned that such a ruling would create "another layer of litigation." Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said arguments that "the government has some obligation to teach everybody about their rights -- that's a sweeping proposition and not required by the Constitution."

Gwendolyn Spivey, an assistant federal public defender representing the bus passengers, said the court should recognize that typically bus riders are poorer and have less knowledge of their rights. "They don't know who their congressman is," she said.

The millions of people who use public transportation should be free of unreasonable searches, she said.

The two men caught ferrying drugs say they didn't feel free to get up and leave when police stood over them in the aisle of a bus and started asking questions. One officer was positioned at the front of the bus.

Officers asked to pat down the men's baggy clothing. The men agreed, and officers felt hard objects on the men's legs that turned out to be packets of cocaine. They were convicted of drug charges.

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