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Police search baggage of NJ mass transit passengers

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Jeffrey Gold on July 25.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Police on Monday began searching the baggage of mass transit users in New Jersey in response to two waves of bombings in London this month.

Authorities pledged the inspections would be done randomly to prevent racial and ethnic profiling, but the American Civil Liberties Union maintained the searches were unconstitutional.

People who refused to open bags would not be allowed to ride NJ Transit buses and trains, as well as the PATH light rail to New York. Police, however, could not detain them solely for refusing, under rules announced last week by the state.

The searches added a new level of scrutiny for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey travelers, and come four days after similar searches began on the New York subway system and two train systems, Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road.

Inspections at NJ Transit train and bus terminals around the state will be conducted by NJ Transit police, acting Gov. Richard J. Codey announced Friday, a day after a second set of bombings struck mass transit targets in the British capital.

"In light of the recent attacks in London, it is necessary to bring a new level of vigilance to our mass transit system," he said.

Codey said Friday there is no specific threat about attacks in New Jersey.

Also Friday, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that travelers using its facilities, including PATH, AirTrain Newark and its bus terminal in New York, would also be subject to random searches of bags starting Monday.

Random searches began Thursday for riders on New York subways, buses, ferries and trains.

As in New York, the ACLU said the inspections violate protections against unreasonable searches. Edward Barocas, legal director of the group's New Jersey chapter, said it was too early to determine what, if any, action the group would take.

A ranking member of the state Attorney General's Office said the searches will be constitutional because the methods developed for NJ Transit police will provide for "true, random selection" of people whose baggage will be checked.

"It's not decided by the officer on the scene," Assistant Attorney General Ronald Susswein, deputy director of the Division of Criminal Justice, said last week. "Under this program, random selection, police officers do not use individualized suspicion."

For example, on a particular day, they might be told to check every third person carrying a bag or package. The number will not be disclosed to prevent people from avoiding scrutiny, he said.

Officers can challenge anyone who appears suspicious, for example, by wearing heavy clothing on a hot day or by carrying something with protruding wires, Susswein said.

About 800,000 passenger trips are recorded every weekday on NJ Transit, with about a half-million on buses, 230,000 on trains, and the rest on light rail. The PATH system shuttles tens of thousands of commuters under the Hudson River between Hoboken, Newark and Manhattan.

Security around mass transit hubs in New Jersey was increased after the first London bombing on July 7 and will continue, state police said.

Monday, July 25, 2005

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