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Metro begins random searches of passengers’ bags

COLLEGE PARK — Washington’s Metro police began randomly inspecting passengers’ bags for the first time Thursday at stations in Maryland and Virginia, a day after rights groups began an online petition against the program.

At the College Park station in Maryland, two screeners positioned at the entrance swabbed some riders’ bags and inspected them in a process that look less than a minute each. The searches also began in at least one other location, the Braddock Road Metro station in Virginia.

Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik said they inspected 25 bags in an hour at College Park and that the program would continue at multiple locations throughout the day.

“The whole idea is randomness,” he said. Pavlik said the swab process is much quicker and less intrusive than searching through bags, and takes an average of about 15 to 18 seconds per bag.

Pavlik says a Metro transit police officer kept count of the number of bags entering the College Park station and pulled passengers aside at regular intervals. The bags were inspected by two Transportation Security Administration screeners who swabbed the outside of the bags, but did not look inside.

Dennis White, 59, who lives in College Park, said he was happy to find the inspections on his commute to work in Washington.

“In order to have a safe system, you have to make sure people don’t get on it with explosives,” said White, after having his bag inspected. “I really think we need to be realistic in these times.”

Carol Cole, 58, of Greenbelt, said she wasn’t bothered by the inspection. “I don’t mind so much because you never know what is sitting next to you — the shoebomber or something?”

At least one woman was not happy about the inspections and said she felt the process was intrusive.

Metro’s program is based on similar efforts in Boston and New York, where they have been viewed favorably by the public, according to Metro Transit Police Department Chief Michael Taborn. He said the inspections have been in the works for years and are not a response to any particular threat.

However, in recent months there have been various threats to the system. One man was accused of casing stations in what he thought was an al-Qaida plot to bomb and kill commuters and another man is charged with threatening on Facebook to detonate pipe bombs in the system.

On Monday, two rights groups began an online petition against Metro’s program. Patrick Elder, a co-founder of DC Bill of Rights Coalition, believes the plan is against the 4th Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches. The Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition joined the group in starting the petition.

Similar searches on New York’s subways were challenged by the ACLU in 2005, but an appeals court determined they were constitutional.