WA Supreme Court upholds the legality of transit fare enforcement

But the State of Washington v. Zachery Kyle Meredith ruling also urges agencies to reconsider their use of armed officers on public transportation.

King County Metro Transit buses leaving Northgate Transit Center

King County Metro Transit buses leave the Northgate Transit Center as workers put the finishing touches on the future light-rail station. (Lizz Giordano for Crosscut)

Washington transit agencies may want to reconsider their use of armed police officers to ensure passengers have paid their fares, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a complicated and divided decision.

The 5-4 ruling in the State of Washington v. Zachery Kyle Meredith does not prohibit transit agencies from using armed officers for fare enforcement, but it does explain at length why plaintiff Zachery Kyle Meredith should not have been handcuffed and arrested for not paying to ride a bus in Snohomish County in 2018. 

On a day when civilian fare monitors were not available, Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies went through Meredith’s bus asking people to show proof of payment. He could not show an Orca card or a receipt for payment and gave the officers a false name when asked. While Meredith was one of several passengers escorted off the bus, he was the only one to be handcuffed and arrested after additional questioning and a fingerprint check. 

“Many transit systems have already discontinued similar practices due to their known, racially disproportionate impact,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in the beginning of the lead ruling, which was signed by two other justices and endorsed in part by two concurring opinions. 

Yu notes, on the other hand, that transit agencies have the authority to make sure people pay their fares.  Most of the argument in four justices’ opinions concerns how Meredith was questioned and arrested.

“The authority of transit systems and the rights of transit passengers need not conflict. However, striking the proper balance requires careful attention to the way in which fare enforcement is conducted,” Yu wrote.

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