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MTA promises to stop violating civil liberties — again

PhotographyAmerican Civil Liberties UnionJustice System

For nearly as long as there has been motorized travel, there have been shutterbugs taking pictures of trains, planes, automobiles and the like. And surely no form of transportation is more romanticized — or attracts a more dedicated fan base — than rail travel.

So how is it that twice this year tourists taking pictures of light rail have been detained and hassled by Maryland Transit Administration police for the purported crime of photography? Worse yet, in both instances the victims were repeatedly told that it was illegal to take pictures of light rail trains while standing on public property.

It should not take the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union to sniff out this questionable interpretation of the law. When an MTA officer told a Pennsylvania man, an avid photographer and railroad enthusiast, in February that it was illegal to photograph rail operations in Maryland, she was wrong, wrong, wrong.

That's not just some left-wing card-carrying ACLU lawyer's opinion. That's the view of the agency's own general counsel and the Maryland Attorney General who told the ACLU as much five years ago (and thus averted a lawsuit) when there was a similar incident involving an ACLU paralegal who was told by an officer it was illegal to take pictures on MTA property.

Let's set the record straight for any MTA police officers who might be reading this: Photography is a First Amendment right. The transit police can no more prevent people from taking pictures, still or video, on public property than they can stop them from taking notes or speaking their minds.

What police can do if they see suspicious behavior (although how photography ever became equated with terrorism is anyone's guess), they have the right to question that person in a non-threatening manner. And if that person can't offer a credible explanation and there is reasonable suspicion of illegal activities, they may even ask for ID and/or detain him or her.

These are not arcane technicalities of law. These are fundamental freedoms Americans all enjoy under the U.S. Constitution. Even the agency's own web site notes that non-commercial photography is permitted on MTA property, a point that seems to have gotten lost on police.

Maryland Department of Transportation officials, including MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells, say they agree, that the agency's employees were misinformed and that people are free to take non-commercial photographs and video of light rail or any other mode of public transportation. Mr. Wells promised to instruct his officers of that fact and hopes to avert a possible ACLU lawsuit.

But one can hardly blame the ACLU for being skeptical. This is what was promised five years ago, and the excuses about post-9/11 police concerns (and phantom portions of the Patriot Act) over "critical transportation infrastructure" are wearing thin. Nikons don't blow up trains.

The incidents also beg the question, how well trained are MTA police officers anyway? If they can't get correctly follow a policy that has allegedly been on the books for years, one has to wonder how well they perform their jobs generally.

Perhaps the state would be better served if the responsibility for policing public transit were left to a sister agency, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. MdTA police are already assigned to protect toll roads and facilities, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, the Port of Baltimore and the Motor Vehicle Administration.

That may be an overreaction to the behavior of a few state employees, but not by much. The incidents deserve to be treated seriously. Mr. Wells will have to offer more than a meeting with lawyers or a few promises if he is restore public confidence that his officers know what they are doing.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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