Trapped in the Tunnel: Passengers on Stalled Trains Have Few Rights

On a recent voyage aboard an inbound N-Judah, Keith Bollinger found himself seated near a “spun wino” who swigged from a jug and reeled off non sequiturs (“Ya run this train backwards and it puts electric back into the wires!”). Nothing new there, but Bollinger and his fellow passengers were a captive audience within a train stalled in the Sunset Tunnel.

Actually, that's nothing new, either. This was, to Bollinger's recollection, his sixth time trapped in a Muni tunnel. After 50 minutes, despite the driver's announcement that he could not authorize them to flee via the emergency exits, the passengers did just that. A day after the mid-July incident, Bollinger was still shaken up. “When do I have the right to free myself?” he asked.

Per Muni's evacuation guidelines, there is no set time passengers must commingle with winos before demanding their freedom. This was the 35th rail delay of 20 minutes or greater since 2011. If Muni deems it necessary, you will not be permitted to leave the vehicle, perhaps for hours.

If Muni detains passengers unnecessarily, they might claim false imprisonment. But, notes Golden Gate University Law School Dean Emeritus Peter Keane, Muni can evoke legitimate safety reasons why passengers shouldn't stroll through tunnels; you might get electrocuted or eaten by rats. A court would have to determine “the limits of reasonableness,” which vary case-by-case.

Fellow Golden Gate law professor Mort Cohen agrees the false imprisonment claim is weak — especially because passengers are hardly barricaded within vehicles. But he points out that a government agency refusing to allow passengers off trains could be considered an intervention into their personal lives, arguably violating the right to privacy enshrined in the state constitution. That said, Cohen notes that the “expectation of privacy is not that great” on a Muni train, and the government has “an interest” in intervening in passengers' private lives (e.g., to save you from electrocution or rats).

The government, Cohen continues, must have a “compelling purpose” to abridge someone's “fundamental rights.” A First Amendment “right to travel” on Muni is likely not a fundamental right, so the government needs only a “rational purpose” rather than a “compelling” one to restrict it. Regardless, Cohen feels keeping riders out of unsafe areas to be both “compelling” and “rational.” If an aggrieved passenger approached him, “I wouldn't take the case.”

The lawyer does note that habeas corpus, which protects against indefinite detention, can be invoked sooner than the standard 24 hours in cases where there's a likelihood of future confinement.

In Muni's case, it's a near certainty.

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