Legislature debating decriminalizing fare evasion, allowing Metro Transit to focus on more serious crimes

Activists say fare evasion needs to be decriminalized to prevent racial profiling

By: - May 28, 2021 6:35 am

A Metro Transit Police officer patrols a Blue Line train at 38th Street on January 18, 2021. Some lawmakers want to allow Metro Transit to hire non-sworn workers to enforce fare payment, allowing sworn officers to focus on more serious offenses. Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

An attempt to reform how Minnesota enforces transit fare and deals with a concerning rise in serious crime on trains and buses in recent years hangs in the balance as the Legislature nears a self-imposed deadline to finish their work for the year. 

People who ride without paying the $2.50 fare pay a $180 fine if caught and can be charged with a misdemeanor. 

Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers want to decriminalize fare evasion and allow any Metro Transit personnel to issue administrative citations, which wouldn’t go on a person’s record, joining likeminded agencies across the nation. 

Fare evasion should be treated like a parking ticket. You wouldn’t get a misdemeanor if you got a parking ticket,” said House Transportation Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “It’s so out of whack.”

The DFL-controlled House would also allow transit employees other than sworn officers to enforce fare, which would free up sworn officers to focus on serious crime, which rose markedly in 2019. 

Crime on the light rail was rising before the pandemic, with a 35% increase at stations outside of Downtown Minneapolis in 2019. “If we want light rail to be useful and successful, people have to feel safe,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska,” told the Star Tribune in late 2019. 

While transit crime has decreased along with ridership during the pandemic, the Metropolitan Council has been adding security measures, such as real-time cameras on vehicles, increasing police overtime and increasing staff who monitor text message reports from riders reporting crime. 

The Republican-controlled Senate did not include the changes in their version of the transportation bill, so the idea’s future is still up in the air. Senate Republicans didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

There’s some Republican support, in principle. “A $180 fine given the small fare, most people would say it’s excessive,” said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, who worked on a similar bill last year that failed to pass. Koznick said with people returning to public transportation, now is the perfect time for changes that he hopes would make riding transit a safer, better experience for the people who need it by freeing up transit police to tackle serious crime. “We need to at least try and get more eyes and ears on the platforms, and establish a new expectation and culture in our transit,” he said.  

In the House bill, Metro Transit police would still be able to issue misdemeanor citations for fare evasion along with the new unarmed workers. Fines for not paying would start at $35, and the Metropolitan Council could also require community service instead of paying the actual fine. 

The Metropolitan Council, which runs Metro Transit, supports these efforts. 

“This authority is critical to Metro Transit’s broader transit security initiatives to increase official presence on our system,” Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle wrote in a letter to the conference committee, which was the group of senators and representatives who met before the end of the regular legislative session to try to hammer out a deal. “We are all in agreement that our current approach isn’t working so let’s work together on implementing these new initiatives.”

Transit riders disembark from a Green Line train in Saint Paul to connect with a shuttle during track work. Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

But continuing to allow police to issue misdemeanor citations concerns some advocates. 

“We could potentially see two different systems of enforcement as a result of the legislation,” said Finn McGarrity, an organizer with Move Minnesota, a transportation advocacy group. Allowing both types of citations means two people who both evaded fare could be treated differently — one given an administrative citation, which wouldn’t go on a criminal record, and the other given a misdemeanor citation, which would. 

(Disclosure: The writer was a cofounder of the Twin Cities Transit Rider Union, which is working on decriminalizing fare evasion and testified on a fare evasion bill at the Legislature in 2020, but he is no longer associated with the group.) 

Black people made up 24% of transit riders in the region as of 2016. But in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, almost half the defendants cited for fare evasion are Black people.

The law as currently proposed would only apply to the Metropolitan Council and the seven-county metro area. But it could be expanded to cover the entire state, especially as the city of Rochester proposes a bus line that allows people to pay before they board, similar to the light rail and the A and C Line buses. 

California also has a similarly written state law. Not paying your fare can result in an infraction that is equivalent to a petty misdemeanor. But the law also allows agencies that operate in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles to issue administrative citations instead, which both do.

With the legislative session concluding May 17, DFL House members and Senate GOP members have just days to settle their differences on this and other transportation issues. If a deal is reached, legislators will vote on it when Gov. Tim Walz calls them back to a special session in June. 

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.