Unpaid $1.25 fare on light rail buys passenger 5 hours in jail

December 15, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

A 28-year-old man headed to his company's Christmas party was arrested, handcuffed and jailed for five hours because he hadn't paid a $1.25 light rail fare.

Anthony C. Friend of the 300 block of Cathedral St. has been charged with theft of less than $300 in connection with the incident Saturday afternoon.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to as much as 18 months in prison and be fined $500.

Fare payment on the 22 1/2 -mile-long Central Light Rail Line is based on the honor system, with spot enforcement. Patrons board without going through gates or facing a conductor. The Mass Transit Administration says the system reduces costs and is fast and efficient.

In Mr. Friend's case, MTA officials said, proper procedures were followed. Mr. Friend would have received a citation and been allowed to continue on his way had he shown valid identification to the MTA police officer, they said.

Mr. Friend, a receptionist at a billboard company, said he told Officer Ronald L. Lurz that he did have identification -- two bank automated teller cards -- but doesn't carry a driver's license because he suffers from epileptic seizures.

His condition, confirmed by medical records, causes episodes that can make him appear to be drunk or mentally disturbed. Mr. Friend said he carries minimal identification to thwart thieves who might take advantage of him during a seizure.

He said the Saturday incident was triggered when he approached Officer Lurz on the train, which the officer's own report confirmed.

"I'm so disgusted," Mr. Friend said. "I've never been arrested in my life, and I got arrested for $1.25. They treated me like a piece of dirt. They really did."

Mr. Friend said it was the first time he had ridden on the light rail line and that he didn't realize he had to buy a ticket from a vending machine before he boarded at Howard and Centre streets shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday.

Carrying a red bag with a silver bow, which contained a gift of a golf cap for his company's vice president, Mr. Friend was headed to the Patapsco Avenue station to meet a co-worker. The two had planned to drive together to Carroll County for a Christmas party sponsored by their employer, Revere National Corp.

Police said Mr. Friend approached Officer Lurz after the officer had begun asking passengers for tickets.

Mr. Friend asked Officer Lurz "if he could get off and purchase a ticket," according to the police report. The officer then asked him for identification, and Mr. Friend "stated he was 28 and did not carry any identification."

Officer Lurz and Mr. Friend got off the train at Camden Yards, where Mr. Friend was handcuffed and taken by police car to the city's Southern District station. He spent six hours there, including five in a cell, before he was released on his own recognizance by a District Court commissioner.

Getting arrested for not paying a light rail fare is uncommon, but hardly exceptional. Last month, MTA police charged six people with that crime.

MTA police check an average of 2,000 people each day, and 99.5 percent have paid their fares, officials said. Over the last six months, 528 passengers have received citations.

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said he is confident that the written record in Mr. Friend's case "truthfully and honestly reflects what transpired" and that he is not prepared to "second-guess" the actions of Officer Lurz.

"I can't say that his guy was grievously harmed," Mr. Agro said. "I've not heard anything that suggests the police officer didn't conduct himself properly."

Nevertheless, MTA officials said late yesterday that they will recommend the charge against Mr. Friend be reduced to a citation that carries a $270 fine. The case is scheduled to be heard Jan. 26 in District Court.

The episode was not the first time the MTA has been accused of overzealous fare collection. In August 1992, an elderly couple from Towson were arrested for not paying their fare despite the fact that the fare machines weren't working at the station where they boarded.

The couple threatened to sue, and the case was settled. Both parties have declined to discuss the settlement, but sources within the MTA have said it involved a five-figure cash payment.

Mr. Friend said he is considering filing suit against the MTA. He said he thinks race might have been a factor in the incident. He is black, and Officer Lurz is white.

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