WASHINGTON -- It would be hard to disagree with noted food writer Annia Ciezadlo, who thinks New York City should not arrest 12-year-old girls who eat french fries on the subway.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ciezadlo brings up a multitude of concerns regarding a no-eating bill now being considered in the New York Senate -- the bill is an attempt to control the subway's enormous rat population.
Among the concerns: Historically, proscriptions against eating in public have had an anti-Semitic flavor to them. Also, "diabetics, hypoglycemics or the sick, whose health may depend on maintaining their blood sugar at a consistent level" may have to "abandon the subway."
Then Ciezadlo gets to her concern that New York will take to locking up its juveniles, like transit police officers in the nation's capital have done in the past, if New York's no-eating legislation for the subway is passed:
We don't want to end up like Washington, where transit police officers, during an undercover crackdown in November 2000, infamously arrested and handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating french fries. (The officers who searched her book bag, according to the girl, asked if she had any drugs or alcohol in addition to her fries.)
The 2000 incident was actually in October, not November, but there are more pressing details to discuss.
Ansche Hedgepeth was, as Ciezadlo notes, a 12-year-old girl who was arrested for eating one french fry in the Red Line's Tenleytown-AU Metrorail station in October 2000. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had just started "zero tolerance" enforcement of quality-of-life offenses, like eating in the transit system.
WMATA was enthusiastic in its enforcement. Hedgepeth was more than just arrested and handcuffed -- she also had her shoelaces removed, "and she was transported in the windowless rear compartment of a police vehicle to a juvenile processing center, where she was booked, fingerprinted and detained until released to her mother some three hours later -- all for eating a single french fry in a Metrorail station. The child was frightened, embarrassed, and crying throughout the ordeal."
These details come from the opinion written by then D.C. Circuit Judge John Roberts Jr. -- now Chief Justice Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court -- when Hedgepeth's case came before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals' District of Columbia Circuit in 2004.
The issues before the court were pretty technical: Was it unconstitutional for WMATA to arrest children, while adult eaters were merely ticketed? And was Hedgepeth subjected to an unreasonable search and seizure?
Roberts found no constitutional violations -- and notes in the decision that WMATA changed its police of arresting 12 year-olds for eating French fries after "those responsible endured the sort of publicity reserved for adults who make young girls cry."
D.C.'s Metro does enjoy -- even shamelessly brag about -- a comparatively small rat population, and so long as New York does not adopt a "zero tolerance" policy like the one in place that October when Ansche Hedgepeth was 12, concerns about diabetics being forced off public transportation and young girls being sent to the clink for consuming fast food on the subway seem overblown.
True, on occasion, an adult has been arrested for eating in the system since Ansche Hedgepeth was hauled off.
But concerned New York Times op-ed writers, take heart: Overall, enforcement of the no-eating rule in D.C. is fairly scant. Enforcement of no-alcohol rules is more robust.
According to The Washington Post, 97 percent of some 1200 citations issued by Metro Transit Police from January through October 2011 related to alcohol -- fewer than 40 tickets were issued in that period for food-related Metro violations. Note: It's already illegal to consume alcohol on the New York City subway.
Two final observations:
What happened to Ansche Hedgepeth for illegally eating the single french fry was considered so egregious that during John Roberts' Supreme Court confirmation period, his disposition of her case was held up as evidence of the judge's unsuitability for the high court.
And in the 12 years since Hedgepeth was a fast food-eating teenager, Metro's other problems -- crashes, sexual harassment -- have gotten so bad that a commenter recently wrote nostalgically on the blog Greater Greater Washington, "Personally, I miss the days when eating french fries on Metro could get you arrested,"