Despite strong criticism from public defenders and a legislative push for greater leniency, transit police will continue to be allowed to issue harsh “interfering with public transit” charges for minor offenses that, in most cases, have nothing to do with actual interference in the operation of public transit.
At an April 2 meeting at TriMet’s Harrison Square offices, a bill aimed at limiting the use of this blanket charge issued to riders by police was on the chopping block. It was two weeks before the bill’s first scheduled public hearing, and TriMet lobbyist Aaron Deas had arranged the sit down among TriMet officials, a TriMet-funded district attorney and legislators.
As a result of the meeting, Rep. Jeff Barker, (D-Aloha) chair of the House Judiciary Committee reviewing the bill, decided to postpone the bill’s first hearing, effectively ending its chances for passage this session.
“There was a lot of pushback,” says Barker. “A lot of people were concerned. They want public transportation to be safe, and they think this is a tool that’s not being misused.”
Also present at the meeting that day was Erica Rothman, an attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender Services in Portland. She originally brought the bill to Rep. Lew Frederick, (D-Portland) who introduced it, after becoming frustrated with what she and other public defenders say is a charge that’s a waste of court resources. Rothman says she represents four to five clients per week who face interfering with public transit charges — a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail — usually in circumstances where a less serious charge would apply.
“I was disappointed with the meeting,” says Rothman. “They kept talking about safety and security, but if someone assaults someone, that’s what assault charges are for.”
Frederick’s office was unaware of why the bill had died so suddenly, but his spokesperson says, “Frederick will be back with this issue.”
And he’s not the only one. Rep. Mitch Greenlick, (D-Portland) says he found out about the bill “late in the game,” but intends to sponsor it next session if TriMet doesn’t remedy the problem in the interim.
“I’ve been a huge TriMet supporter whenever they try and do anything, and they know that, and I say, ‘You guys got to get a handle on this or you’re going to lose all your best champions in the Legislature,’” he says, “because I’m really annoyed.”
“I mean, a misdemeanor with a 30-day possible sentence is one thing, but having the possibility of a 12-month sentence, that just seems completely outrageous to me,” says Greenlick. “I think they should do away with the interfering with public transit option except in cases where there’s really interfering with public transit.”
“Interfering with public transit” or IPT, carries the most serious misdemeanor charge available and carries the same weight as DUII or misdemeanor assault. But only a fraction of offenders charged with IPT actually physically and intentionally interfered with the operation of a transit vehicle, contrary to what the name of the charge might suggest. It is most commonly issued to people who enter TriMet property while under a temporary exclusion.
House Bill 2826 was intended to protect transit riders from receiving an IPT charge for merely entering TriMet property while under exclusion. The bill would have changed the language of the charge so that it would no longer apply to someone who “enters or remains unlawfully in or on a public transit vehicle or public transit station.”
Exclusions can be issued for many reasons, including failing to pay the fare, which for most riders is $2.50 for two and a half hours. It typically requires the offending rider to stay off TriMet property for 30 days, but the exclusion doesn’t begin the day the citation is issued. It begins on the 11th business day after the citation is issued, which public defenders say creates confusion. If an offender fails to accurately calculate the duration of the exclusion and steps onto a MAX platform, into a bus shelter or boards a transit vehicle before the 30 days has expired, they can be arrested, jailed and charged with IPT.
This past July, transit rider Chris Tejero was charged with IPT after he entered TriMet’s WES Commuter Rail line without paying. The ticket kiosk wasn’t functioning properly and the conductor had given him permission to enter the vehicle, as previously reported by Street Roots (“One wrong step,” Street Roots, March 6, 2015).
He was not under exclusion. It was only after Tejero went to trial and a jury heard testimony from the conductor, that Tejero was acquitted of the Class A misdemeanor.
Public defenders in Multnomah County and legislators in support of the bill argue the penalty an IPT carries is too harsh and that the charge is disproportionately issued to people experiencing homelessness and people of color. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that 54 percent of those charged with IPT between 2010 and April 2014 were white, and 27 percent were African American – TriMet’s estimates on the percentage of African-American riders during the same period of time fluctuated, but never rose above single digits.
IPTs were issued 840 times in the Portland metro area in 2014.
Rothman came to the early April meeting at TriMet headquarters armed with data she says an office intern painstakingly compiled by going through all 364 IPT cases that came through the Metropolitan Public Defenders’ office in 2014.
The data show only 2 percent of defendants were issued an IPT for intentionally disrupting the flow of transit. Five percent were issued IPTs for disorderly conduct and 3 percent for physical contact involving a transit employee or transit police officer. An overwhelming 90 percent of all IPTs that came through the Public Defenders’ office were issued under the subset of the law that HB 2826 aimed to remove – entering and remaining on transit property unlawfully.
Deas, TriMet’s Government Affairs Manager, says the bill has raised questions about how IPTs are issued, but TriMet is not convinced there’s a problem.
“I think that after having our meeting, we determined that there’s a lot of anecdotal information, and there’s some data, but there isn’t really any complete data,” says Deas. “We have no interest in giving people tickets unless we need to, and we don’t want to be giving people the wrong tickets, but we also don’t want to be hamstringing our transit police and our district attorneys that work with us to keep our system moving, so there’s kind of a balance there.”
Greenlick says TriMet may want to keep the status quo because district attorneys like to have serious charges “at their fingertips” so they can plea bargain to less serious charges. “They argue that they’d never try to put someone in jail for a year (for an IPT). Well then, if you’re not going to put someone in jail for a year, why do you have it there to hang over their head?”
Of the 364 IPTs that came through the Metropolitan Public Defenders’ office, 29 percent resulted in a misdemeanor conviction. More than half were dismissed or acquitted, but not before tax dollars paid for the arrest, prosecution, defense, and in some cases, jail stay. In Multnomah County the average jail sentence for an IPT conviction was 15 days at a cost of $2,520 per inmate.
“We want to retain as much of the ability for us to be able to do things as possible,” says Deas. “The session always kind of lights a fire to make things happen – things can happen in the Legislature – so I think this is one of those where we say, OK, we better look at this and if we don’t come up with a reasonable action plan before the next session, then there will be action.”
According to Deas, IPT is useful when dealing with riders who have been “excluded 20 times and keep continuing to come back.” He says if they get a lesser charge, like criminal trespassing, they get processed and released the same day and get back on public transit that evening.
The Amalgamated Transit Union also opposed the bill. According to union president Bruce Hansen, “We tried to find a way to support the bill,” but he says the union didn’t like the language. He says once a rider is excluded, he or she can pose a threat to transit employees.
While transit police can continue to issue IPTs for a broad range of offenses for now, the issue is unlikely to go away.
“It’s fairly dead for this session, but it’s not forgotten,” says Greenlick.