Image: Bag search in New York
Kathy Willens  /  AP file
Police search Grace Spivey's purse for traces of explosives on Nov. 14 in New York's Grand Central Station. Officials increased security in New York after the London subway attacks in July.
updated 12/2/2005 8:09:01 PM ET 2005-12-03T01:09:01

A federal judge Friday upheld the police department’s practice of randomly searching subway riders’ bags, saying the intrusion on people’s privacy is minimal while the threat of a terrorist bombing is “real and substantial.”

Police tightened security in the nation’s largest subway system in July after the deadly terrorist attacks in London’s underground.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman cited testimony that up to 50 percent of terrorist attacks were directed at transportation systems and said the searches were effective.

“The risk of a terrorist bombing of New York City’s subway system is real and substantial,” Berman said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union had challenged the searches, arguing that riders were being subjected to a pointless and unprecedented invasion of their privacy.

Group will appeal decision
The group’s legal director, Christopher Dunn, planned to appeal the decision immediately, saying the NYCLU remained “confident that this program is unconstitutional.”

The judge cited the testimony of police officials who said the search policy might cause terrorists to choose a different target.

“Because the threat of terrorism is great and the consequences of unpreparedness may be catastrophic, it would seem foolish not to rely upon those qualified persons in the best position to know,” Berman said.

Gail Donoghue, a city lawyer, called the searches a “life-and-death” necessity and said the city should not wait for a specific threat or an attack to crack down.

“That kind of complacency is a very dangerous thing,” she said. “The threat is immediate. It is real and of extreme concern to those who run the counterterrorism in this city.”

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the ruling showed that “common sense prevails.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said authorities “have an obligation to keep this city safe, and the NYPD will continue to use reasonable precautions like bag searches to do so.”

During the trial, Deputy Police Commissioner David Cohen said the searches keep terrorists guessing.

“Unpredictability is the enemy of terrorists and the ally of those trying to prevent an attack,” said Cohen, who joined the police department after a three-decade career at the CIA analyzing the threat of terrorism.

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