BART board delays action on seat hogging ban

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News and other Bay Area News Group affiliates on March 10, 2016.

OAKLAND — The BART board of directors sent a proposal to crack down on seat hogs back for more work Thursday over concerns that the new rules weren’t clearly defined and might be arbitrarily enforced.

The proposal, introduced by Director Joel Keller, would prohibit passengers from placing their personal belongings on the seat next to them, if it prevents other passengers from having a seat. Under the proposal, first-time scofflaws would be subject to fines of $100 and up to $500 for repeat offenders.

While most passengers are typically respectful toward their fellow riders, Keller said it’s “pretty annoying” when they aren’t. Right now, BART police officers don’t have any mechanism to enforce good behavior, he said.

“If (police officers) have no authority to intervene, they will have to walk off the train and leave that circumstance unresolved,” Keller said. “I just fear that a relatively minor incident will escalate.”

He cited growing ridership levels and increasingly crowded trains as one of the main motivations for the rule, which he said is only intended to be enforced when trains are crowded.

The problem, said board President Tom Radulovich, lies in the language of the proposed law, which does not specify that the train must be crowded, nor does it offer a definition for what constitutes a crowded train. The board’s legal counsel, Matthew Burrows, said adding language about what percentage of seats had to be left empty, or even requiring all seats to be full before the regulation would go into effect, could create an undue burden on police officers, who would be tasked with enforcing the rule.

Russell Bloom, BART’s independent police auditor, said the new rule also created a greater potential for conflict between police officers and citizens.

“Every additional opportunity for contact between police and the public is an opportunity for potential conflict or potential inconsistent enforcement, and that’s something we want to be aware of going forward here,” Bloom said.

Director Rebecca Saltzman balked at the proposal as written, saying she was less concerned about officers’ ability to apply discretion as she was with the public’s own biases. With cellphone apps and other tools making it easier than ever to report incidents to BART police, Saltzman said it seemed likely that riders would call in just to complain about people they didn’t like on the train, even when there are plenty of seats available.

“We have to think about the biases of the people reporting and not just the police officers,” Saltzman said.

She also requested an amendment to make it clear that first-time violators would only receive a warning before being issued a citation. The board is expected to vote on the revised ordinance at its next board meeting in two weeks.

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