September 21, 2018

Case against elected official Ana del Rocío falls apart 

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and lawyers from Levi Merrithew Horst PC announced today a sweeping ruling in the case of Ana del Rocío, a well-known elected official who was stopped, harassed, arrested, and booked into jail because of a dispute over TriMet’s $2.50 fare. In a written opinion issued late yesterday, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Wittmayer concluded that random stops of TriMet passengers to check for fare was a violation of the Oregon Constitution. 
Del Rocío, a mother of two, said she was pleased with the judge’s ruling. “What the court’s decision strongly validates is what transit riders like myself have been voicing for years: despite best intentions, our fare enforcement system is severely broken, has caused great harm to innocent people, and must change immediately.”
Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon, says suspicionless fare checkpoints are similar to sobriety checkpoints that the Oregon Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 1987. 
“These dragnet searches violate the rights of all people who are stopped, whether or not they have proof of fare,” dos Santos said. “This has an outsized effect on people of color, because it increases the already disparate impacts of over-policing and over-prosecution. Furthermore, TriMet fare enforcement seems to target stops in low-income neighborhoods and places people go to get social services, such as the Old Town stop where Ana was surrounded by officers. TriMet’s enforcement tactics often pile on fines and fees to the people who can least afford them.”
Attorney Jesse Merrithew said that Oregon law was clear that mass stops of people without individualized suspicion was illegal well before TriMet designed the MAX. 
“TriMet chose to use a system that relied on mass stops of people without suspicion despite clear law telling them this was illegal,” Merrithew said, “It was their responsibility to design a fare enforcement system that complied with the law. They didn’t.”
Huy Ong, executive director at OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a grassroots organization that works on racial justice and transportation and runs organizing campaigns focused on fare reduction, increased service, and making transit safer without armed security officers, said the ruling was a major victory.
“It is wrong, from a human standpoint, to subject people to arrest for not having a bus ticket,” Ong said. “It’s an absurd waste of resources. Ultimately, transit should be fareless, since riders already pay through their state and federal taxes. The resources wasted on militarized transit would be better utilized in reducing fares.”
The ACLU of Oregon, OPAL, and numerous other organizations have criticized TriMet for the disparate impact of its fare evasion scheme on communities of color and the poor. TriMet’s own study shows that 18% of fare evasion tickets and over 22% of system exclusions were given to Black riders. TriMet’s study concludes, however, that despite this disparity with the general population, they are not engaged in discriminatory enforcement against people of color.
“The court’s ruling isn’t just about the Constitution, it has a real impact on some of the most vulnerable populations of TriMet riders,” said dos Santos. “As of today, TriMet can no longer stop riders to check for fare without reasonable and individualized suspicion. This is a massive victory and one that we hope TriMet will stop fighting. It’s long past time to move on and create a constitutionally sound system.” 
“Let’s not forget that this all started over a $2.50 fare,” said david rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “They put a senior prosecutor on this case. Ana never should have been prosecuted in the first place. District attorneys and their prosecutors shouldn’t be wasting public resources on cases like Ana’s because they provide no meaningful public safety value.”
Del Rocío said that the case took a toll on her, but she is proud that TriMet will no longer be allowed to conduct suspicionless searches of riders.
“Being wrongfully arrested, jailed, and prosecuted nearly broke me,” del Rocío said. “No person should ever be made to feel confused or afraid by officers that are supposed to be keeping us safe. Our task now, long overdue, is to figure out a better, more humane and dignified way to treat our transit riders.”
Del Rocío was represented pro bono by Noah Horst and Jesse Merrithew with Levi Merrithew Horst PC on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon, as well as Mat dos Santos and Leland Baxter-Neal of the ACLU of Oregon, and Portland-based defense attorney John Schlosser.