When you sleep in an airport or at a train or bus station are you in a public place or privately owned place and what legal rights or responsibilities do you have when resting there?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Transportation stations are usually under the control of government authorities and, as such, are considered public places. The possession posts, the bathing posts and the food posts  all apply in public transportation stations. Like parks and government office buildings, they can have limited access. They might be closed to non-ticket holders after a certain hour. They might allow sleeping only in designated passenger areas. And, as in any other public places, the local loitering or vagrancy laws apply there.[i]

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Being public in nature, if not in fact,[ii] (because sometimes they are owned by a bus or train company) their restrooms, lighting, chairs, vending machines, and other amenities are generally available to anyone who might come in. In privately owned stations, economic reasons like the high expense of having staff and procedures to remove people and the loss of prospective future business are behind this access; it just isn’t worth the money to try and keep out non-passengers. But having seating and restrooms for non-passengers and cleaning up after them cost money too. When people make excessive use of the amenities without using the facility for its intended service, it becomes economically necessary to have the police do vagrancy arrests.

Despite the various legal forms of exclusion, homeless people are visible and numerous in transportation stations. Service providers and the police look for them there. In fact, the Code of Federal Regulations requires Veterans Administration outreach workers to look for needy homeless veterans in bus and train stations.[iii] Searching for veterans, they reach out to every homeless person they encounter. This uninvited, though potentially helpful, attention raises a question about homeless people’s legal rights in transportation centers: whether they have to accept help or even listen to helpful offers.
There is certainly no law providing for peace and quiet when a person sits down to rest or lies down to sleep in a transportation station. There is, however, a crime of “disturbing the peace” which groups of homeless might invoke if they felt imposed-upon by do-gooders.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines disturbing the peace as, “[i]nterruption of the peace, quiet and good order of a neighborhood or community, particularly by unnecessary and distracting noises.”[iv] Each locality has its own ordinance defining breach of the peace or disturbing the peace. Any citizens whose peace is breached can ask police to charge the perpetrator. People do that when the neighbor’s dog barks too much. Why couldn’t people trying to rest in bus stations try it, at least when they are directly and intentionally interrupted by people demanding their attention?

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Aside from trying that revolutionary tactic for warding off social services, it is also possible to simply say, “go away” or “no thank you.” The law does not require people to hear or read messages that they do not want to get. We know this from the logic of First Amendment free speech cases. When civil rights lawyers argue that someone has a right to say something, they assert that listeners have equal free speech rights to respond to, criticize, or ignore the message. A famous court opinion about the Nazi party’s right to wear swastikas and demonstrate in a U.S. Jewish community concluded with this declaration: “direct the citizens of Skokie that it is their burden to avoid the offensive symbol.”[v]


[i] People v. Guilbert, 472 N.Y.S.2d 90 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 1983); People v. Goodwin. 519 N.Y.S.2d 189 (N.Y. Crim. Term 1987).

[ii] The Supreme Court explained why and how a privately owned train station has certain obligations as a public place in Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S.454 (1960). That case was brought by an African American man who was refused service at a restaurant in a Trailways bus terminal. The Supreme Court held that “When a bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the [Interstate Commerce] Act.” Id. at 454.

[iii] 38 C.F.R. § 61.81 (2007).  http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?
sid=c0a3717fcb68fe04e5b5b85da9cdc56c&c=ecfr&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title38/38tab_02.tpl

[iv] Black’s Law Dictionary 477 (6th ed. 1990).

[v] Skokie v. National Socialist Party, 373 N.E.2d 21, 26 (Ill. App. Ct. 1978).

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