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ACLU Says Subway Searches Unconstitutional

Two weeks ago, police in New York stepped up their campaign against terrorism and began searching the baggage of people using the city's subways and busses. Now the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit, saying the searches are unconstitutional.

The ACLU's lawsuit, which it filed on behalf of five New York subway riders, claims that the new search policy violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects people against unwarranted searches and seizures. Police announced they would begin randomly searching the bags of anyone wishing to ride the city's busses and trains after officials in London discovered a series of undetonated bombs in that city's public transportation system on July 21st. Terrorist bombings in the system two weeks earlier had killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds.

Christopher Dunn of New York's chapter of the ACLU says the police are not searching people randomly - that they are engaging in racial profiling. But he says even if the searches are random, they are still illegal. "Random searches by definition, even if that's the way they're taking place, are searches based on no suspicion whatsoever," according to Mr. Dunn. "That makes no sense as a security measure, and in our country at least, we have a long tradition that the police do not get to search people about whom they have no suspicion of wrong-doing."

The plaintiffs in the case claim the new search policy has placed unnecessary restrictions on their daily lives. Joseph Gehring says he now fears a confrontation with police, because he will never consent to what he considers an unconstitutional search. "I have therefore been forced to look out for police and look out for the checkpoints and try to evade them when I can, so that I do not even have to worry about the confrontation with police," he says. "In essence, I have been forced to act like a criminal in my own city when I have done nothing wrong."

City officials have released a statement saying they believe the searches meet all appropriate legal requirements, stressing that individuals do not have to submit to a search. They can simply leave the station without riding the train. The New York Police Department has no immediate plans to stop searching riders. But at least one organization is asking Congress to take a look at the activities of the ACLU.

In response to the recently filed lawsuit, Don Swarthout of the group Christians Reviving America's Values, has sent a letter to Congress. He is asking for an investigation into what he calls the ACLU's "widespread use of frivolous lawsuits." Mr. Swarthout says the organization's activities are a threat to national security. "The world has changed. And I understand that the ACLU would say that it's an invasion of privacy," he says. "However, to me, the ACLU would just let that terrorist get on that subway car in New York City with a bomb strapped to his back, and the results would be at least the same as they were in London."

Officials with the ACLU deny that their actions are a threat to security. They say they plan to ask for an injunction to stop the searches while the lawsuit is in progress.